First published in The Times, Monday August 24 2015
It seems more by luck than design that Thaddeus Phillips’s globetrotting solo show has pitched up at the Fringe at the very moment when migration has risen to the top of the European news agenda. The 75-minute collection of travellers’ tales, which the writer/performer has been touring since 2012, switches briefly into the third person to touch on African and Mexican migrants’ attempts to enter Europe and the US. Overall, though, Phillips’s delightful travelogue is less hard-hitting than witty, gently erudite and humane.
The vignettes contained in the show (delivered for the most part in an urgent second-person narrative that allows the audience to experience the story as if it were their own) stretch back some 25 years. Though Phillips starts out seated at a desk in an empty space, his many journeys, on foot, by plane, train and ferry, are vividly realised by no more sophisticated means than a rack of lights, which the performer slides back and forth across the Summerhall stage, and a few evocative sound effects.
Pic: Mark Simpson
The polished piece is wise about the absurd, haphazard nature of borders and the ways in which a country’s immigration policy is a reflection of that nation’s self-image. Thus, in one sequence in 17 Border Crossings, Phillips contrasts the meticulously structured approach of the Israelis to the laid-back attitude of the Jordanian border guards he encounters further down the road. He recounts, with eye-watering precision, his experience of being cavity searched by the French and invokes the network of tunnels that divides Egypt from Gaza – with the punch-line being the delivery of a KFC takeaway rather than the expected cache of arms.
The performer’s relatively privileged vantage point is briefly and poignantly contrasted with the story of José Matada, the Mozambiquan refugee from Angola who died after stowing away in a plane’s wheel well. Yet the most alarming moment comes when Phillips, having been detained for hours at immigration in his native United States, asks how the experience can be avoided in future.
“Oh, that’s easy,” says the terse authority figure. “Don’t travel.”