Songs from the detention centre: the drama set on immigration's frontline

Developed at London’s dynamic Yard theatre, Removal Men is a musical tragicomedy that gives an eye-opening portrait of detention officers’ work. Its creators, MJ Harding and Jay Miller, explain how it captures a fractured Britain

It started with MJ Harding, a founding member of the band Fat White Family, singing a comic song in the character of an immigration officer. When the Yard theatre’s artistic director, Jay Miller, saw Harding’s performance at a club in London, he immediately saw the dramatic possibilities. Now Harding’s debut play Removal Men, a show with songs set in an immigration detention centre, is at the Yard in a production directed by Miller.

The play arrives in the wake of the Brexit vote and in a climate of confusion and division that has seen race-hate attacks increase and attitudes towards migrants harden. It follows three people working in an immigration removal centre, where funding for the compassionate officer programme – designed to help officers resolve the tension between their detention duties and the duty of care they have to the people they are processing for deportation – has been cut. Miller says the play is about love, grief and violence.

“It’s about a confused set of people who need to do a job but who find that doing that job means they have to remove themselves from their own sense of humanity,” says Miller.

Watch a trailer for Removal Men

While there have been plenty of plays about those caught up in a nightmarish bureaucratic system – plays dealing with employment support allowance orasylum seekers – Miller points out that there have been fewer dramas examining the effects on those who administer that system, people working for private security companies such as Serco, which have government contracts to run prisons and facilities such as Yarlswood immigration removal centre.

“The play had its genesis in a direct action that Mike [MJ Harding] was involved in at a hospital to try to stop the deportation of a woman who was being treated there,” says Miller. “He got talking to one of the guards employed by Serco. He realised that they were the same age and came from similar backgrounds. They were not so different, and it was from there that the idea of the play was born. These officers have such absurd job descriptions. On the one hand, they are supposed to care and show compassion, and on the other they are supposed to administer that same person’s forced deportation. Of course it affects them. They are caught in a ridiculous situation, and the tragicomedy of the piece springs from that absurdity and the way the system they are caught in corrupts all relationships.”

‘Theatre isn’t one size fits all’ … Jay Harding, right, with MJ Harding.
‘Theatre isn’t one size fits all’ … Jay Miller, right, with MJ Harding. Photograph: Caleb Wissun-Bhide

The Yard, which looks like a higgledy-piggledy Greek amphitheatre dropped into an industrial warehouse, is not a conventional space. Assembled from reclaimed materials that give it an energising rough-and-ready air, the space operates as a club and a theatre, the successes of one funding the experiments of the other. As the NT discovered with its temporary theatre, the Shed, such a provisional setup can be revitalising, and it’s no coincidence that Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum Dreams and Alexander Zeldin’s Beyond Caring both made the journey from the Yard to that red box on the South Bank.

“We’re always saying that we are still making the Yard and always will be,” says Miller. “We’re not interested in it being static and finished. When you think you’ve finally finished and you really know how to do something, it probably means you are doing it badly.”

Although it may be a continuous work in progress, the Yard has put down roots and created networks in Hackney Wick among the community and artists trying to make performance in a city where spiralling rents and gentrification have closed down the kind of artist-led spaces or squats where Miller first spotted Harding’s theatrical potential. As big arts organisations such as Sadler’s Wells and the V&A start moving east into the new cultural and educational quarter on the edge of the Olympic Park, it would be ironic if a small but essential theatre like the Yard is squeezed out. Small venues are crucial to the health of the arts ecology, something that planners and funders are not always as alert to as they should be in the rush to roll out flagship projects.

One of the things that makes the Yard exciting is the fact that it embraces performances as diverse as those created by Chris Goode, Elinor Cook and Deborah Pearson.

“We work with some amazing people, and working with people better than you always makes you better,” says Miller, who was raised in north-east England and cites Newcastle United as an example of a team who rise above themselves when playing much better competition but often falter when evenly matched. “The most important thing about an organisation is who is in it and who you work with. That has to be people who challenge you, how you think and how you do things.”

Miller says that, while many theatres have processes for developing new work, one of the Yard’s greatest assets is a willingness not to apply its own process to all the people it works with, but to find the one that suits that particular artist.

“It’s not a one size fits all. Many theatres have developed a process for artist development. It leads to a unification and sameness about what comes out the other end. Art shouldn’t have formulas because all artists are different. We try to be as flexible as we can with limited resources. If for some reason an artist wants us to scratch their show at 5.30am, we will do our damnedest to make it happen.”

Kristin Hutchinson and Victoria Moseley in Beyond Caring, which was staged at both the Yard and the National Theatre.
Kristin Hutchinson and Victoria Moseley in Beyond Caring, which was staged at both the Yard and the National Theatre. Photograph: Graeme Braidwood

Removal Men is a case in point, developed over two years from seed idea to full-scale production. “Because Mike is a musician, a lot of the script was built around rhythm and sounds, and we spent a lot of time improvising in a room to develop the story and characters,” says Miller.

Miller says that Removal Men was the only show that the Yard could think of producing at the end of 2016 in a Britain that is “more fractured than at any time in my life”, a place where “people don’t trust experts, politicians and probably don’t trust artists either, and don’t know which way to turn or who we really are”.

“One of the things Removal Men does is to remind us that we have more in common than the things that separate us. It’s a show that makes people laugh at the characters, themselves and at where we are in Britain at this particular moment.”

Removal Men is at the Yard theatre, London, until 10 December.


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