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Review: Utopia, Shop Front Theatre, Coventry

Ex-national freelance journalist and author Chris Arnot reviews Theatre Absolute's latest commission, the first in their new three-year Humanistan project.

Utopia by Amahra Spence, part of Theatre Absolute’s Humanistan. Photo Andrew Moore.

The morning after Utopia’s first night came news that far-right extremism now poses the biggest terrorist threat in the UK. Theatre Absolute could hardly have chosen a more telling time to launch their “Humanistan” project.
The “stan” part of that means “place of” or “country”, and artistic director Chris O’Connell has evidently been inspired by the words of the novelist Ben Okri: “Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves lies, they will suffer the future consequence of those lies.”

Utopia by Amahra Spence, part of Theatre Absolute’s Humanistan. Photo Andrew Moore.

From Sir Thomas More to John Lennon, writers have been imagining a world with no countries – “nothing to kill or die for”.
And at one point in her Utopian discourse, Amahra Spence poses the question: “What’s it like to live in a world where borders don’t exist?”
A fanciful question, perhaps, but understandable for a young woman of mixed race who has had relatives affected by the Windrush Scandal – a legacy of Theresa May’s creation of “a hostile environment” during her time at the Home Office.

Utopia by Amahra Spence, part of Theatre Absolute’s Humanistan. Photo Andrew Moore.

Humanistan is evidently going to take a similar form to Theatre Absolute’s though-provoking project Are We Where We Are? Solo performances, in other words, with little in the way of sets or props.
Spence moves up and down a wooden ramp with a frame above it that parts the dark curtains and allows a glimpse of buses and taxis swishing by and the exterior of Ikea beyond.
It’s a reminder that the real world goes on – the world of casual and not-so-casual racism that this writer and performer has evidently experienced. But also a world where “simple acts of kindness” can still move us.

Utopia by Amahra Spence, part of Theatre Absolute’s Humanistan. Photo Andrew Moore.

She keeps her script in hand, admitting in the post-performance discussion that she likes to make last-minute changes.
But she’s hardly dependent upon it. Spence is a performer who can project and engage.  Her accent moves effortlessly from West Midland to West Indian patois, her dazzling eyes seeming to fix on me at times. Or maybe on the bloke behind.
This is theatre at its most intimate and thought-provoking. Theatre absolute, in other words.
Thanks to Chris and Coventry’s Elementary What’s On

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