Nicola McCartney and Dritan Kastrati
Thickskin/Traverse Theatre Company, with Theatre Royal Stratford East
March 23-25, 2023; 90mins
So this is it, then; Oldham Coliseum’s final show after 130 years of entertaining the public (and 45 years of entertaining - and sometimes not - me).
Though we apparently still have a final-farewell event to come (March 31, no details yet, tickets available at noon today), it is fittingly inappropriate that this very well-attended show is the last hurrah for the Coliseum’s final season - it’s a touring production, not a home-company show. But it is ironically spot-on in that it’s about someone who travels a long way and survives near-death experiences to come through relatively unharmed. No such luck for the building, you can bet.
The travails of this theatre notwithstanding, Dritan Kastrati’s true-life adventure – in which he is the main actor among five performers – is a remarkable story (or maybe it isn’t - many must have undergone similar experiences), running from his 11-year-old childhood to young adulthood; one that sees him escape, on his father’s wishes, the physical horrors of the 1990s Balkan wars for the emotional horrors of life in the UK’s well-meaningly awful foster system, where a hug for an upset youngster who desperately needs one is supposedly “unsafe”.
Where the show really succeeds is in theatre company Thickskin’s handling of the script. Staged very simply on an acutely-angled, raft-like wooden platform with few props, Kastrati and fellow performers Ajjaz Awad, Esme Bailey, Daniel Cahill and Samuel Reuben, under the smart direction of Neil Bettles, brilliantly take on multiple roles (including that of Kastrati himself at different ages), as well as mothers, fathers, social workers, bullies, foster parents and Albanian mafia bosses encountered along the way
The only niggling question, for me, is what the show is actually about. Is it the constant danger of travelling for days by car, boat and train to reach a Britain that doesn’t want him? Is it the lack of understanding and loving concern needed by a child whose has left his parents behind and who has been forcibly separated from his 17-year-old brother by the UK authorities? Or is it the displaced life of the young adult, who five years later returns to his homeland to find his village deserted, his parents and family different, and who is hard-pressed to think of either the country of his birth or the UK as really home.
It is, instead, all of these. What writers Nicola McCartney and Kastrati have actually created isn’t a generic tale of asylum-seeker woe and harsh treatment, but a very specific story about a small boy, Kastrati, uprooted from his life and forced to accept a different country and its ways as his own at a particularly vulnerable time of life, when his adult views are being shaped by his general life experiences.
As it happens we really have no idea how well, or badly, Dritan has really coped with it all, except that seeing him acting his own story on stage, appearing to be a well-balanced person, he seems to have overcome his early-life traumas pretty successfully.
At least we can hope, after such a powerful telling of a unimaginable story, that is true…
More info and tickets here