Utopia, Shop Front Theatre, Coventry, 6th November

-Reviewed by Stella Blackhouse-

Coventry’s Shop Front Theatre came into its own in late 2019 with the launch of its second series of new theatrical works inspired by a common provocation. Following on from the critically acclaimed Are We Where We Are, Humanistan ‘invites artists/performers to create and tell positive stories, provoking us to consider that the social and political systems that surround, and arguably are currently failing us, should not be allowed to define our experiences of ‘being human’’. 

Performed in front of the Shop’s plate glass windows, Utopia – a single-hander written and performed by multi-disciplinary artist and creative producer Amahra Spence – blurred the barriers between life and art by bringing in the street scene outside and passers-by as backdrop. For the duration of the piece, the audience lived blissfully suspended in Spence’s dream of ‘a world without borders’.

Set over the five days of a working week, Utopia depicts the life of Shay, a young woman trying hard to make a contribution to life in Britain while living under constant threat of deportation. After immigration issues on Monday lead to her being ‘let go’ from her zero-hours contract at a high-street clothing store, she flees to Utopia, a Caribbean café where she is given refuge by straight-talking, super-maternal proprietor Yvonne. Standing outside, Shay resorts to busking as a way of scraping together the fat fee she needs in order to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain.

What follows is a journey through the indignities of Shay’s precarious existence: the hard work needed to remain unobtrusive and inconspicuous; the trauma of discovering familiar names in reports on the Windrush scandal and of them being sent back to countries they barely know; the sexism (‘as British as institutional racism’); the petty rules.

Yet none of this appears to dent Shay’s love of life. In an uplifting and kaleidoscopic performance, full of humour and linguistic playfulness (‘Go move your car before the warden come in and fine your backside!’ Yvonne orders swaggering loudmouth Troy), Spence gives voice (and accent) to a plethora of different characters, tagging in social media and giving a heart-breaking rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ along the way. By Friday, the regulars at Utopia are coming together to organise an open-mic event to raise funds for Shay’s campaign to stay in Britain.

In a world increasingly obsessed with borders, Utopia is an angry denunciation of their arbitrary division of haves and have-nots, the wealthy allowed to cross and the poor left in limbo. But it is also a joyful and vibrant reassertion of the human spirit. ‘Borders are fuckery!’ declares Spence as she presents us instead with a shared homeland of common humanity.

Photo credit: Andrew Moore