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A CurtainUp London London Review
Fast Labour

In Ukraine I think I shark. No, I was not shark. I was sharkfood. I was plankton.— Victor
Fast Labour
Craig Kelly as Victor
(Photo: Richard Moran)
Steve Waters' delightful new comedy explores the life in Britain of three men from Eastern Europe, economic migrants who start working illegally in a Scottish fish factory. When the men are speaking in English they speak with heavy Eastern European accents but when they are speaking to each other in Russian, they speak in perfect but regionally accented English. It's clever because we get the quick, witty asides in their own language differentiated from the painstaking attempts to find the English expression. It must have been really difficult for the cast to make the switch and not to make mistakes but the effect is worth it.

Victor (Craig Kelly), our hero, has just arrived from the Ukraine under the auspices of English fixer and gang master Grimmer (Mark Jax). The Human Resource Manager Anita (Kirsty Stuart) at the fish factory takes him back to her flat for the night but later Victor, Alexei from Moldova (Roger Evans) and Andrius from Lithuania (Joseph Kloska) are making their way south to work on farms in East Anglia. This is how the farmers and English supermarkets keep costs down.

The immigrant workers live in a disused farmhouse which is called Cold Comfort Farm with cables exposed on the walls, broken windows and no plumbing. Victor sees the business opportunity and doesn't work for Grimmer for long. Instead he sets up a rival business with Anita, Alexei and Andrius importing foreign workers for low paid jobs in the UK, the agency called Fast Labour. The final act sees Victor now joined by Tanya (Charlotte Lucas), his wife and mother of his children from the Ukraine, which of course complicates his relationship with Anita. They are living in a new, luxury house in Kings Lynn and throwing a party with champagne. The profit gouging techniques Victor learnt from Grimmer, he applies to his new workers and cutting so many corners there is a disaster with loss of life which brings Victor's business tumbling down. Alexei who was Grimmer's minder reinvents himself in that role to Victor while Andrius is the voice of conscience.

Steve Waters takes the Eastern European immigrant who is much maligned by the press and convinces us of his humanity. We like these men and we want them to succeed. We have forgotten the popular press image that they are undercutting our workers, keeping wages down and living in overcrowded, substandard housing putting pressure on local services such as health and education. And that is the skill of Waters' writing in that he undermines common-held prejudice. There are moving speeches about what these men have moved away from.

Alexei who was in the army where soldiers were unpaid, tells us his brother in Moldova dreams of a better life in Romania. "In Romania!" Andrius says his brother who is a university lecturer in Vilnius earns less than he does sorting carrots. But Victor had a sausage factory in the Ukraine. Having ensured our empathy for Victor, Waters turns Victor into an exploitative employer, no better than Grimmer and maybe worse. This is a sobering moment. Is this all we can expect from human nature?

The performances are believable and smooth. Of course the characterisations are in the writing but these actors are worth their salt: Alexei, solid, unthinking loyalty, Victor charming, intelligent, quick witted and successful with women, Andrius, serious, a born dissident, unused to manual labour and unafraid to ask for what is due to him.

The video design creates real atmosphere with a moving background convincing us that we are in a motorway service area cars and lorries speeding by, or the flat fields of East Anglia or in Grimmer's garden with a view of Ely cathedral, or overlooking pedestrians on a street in Kings Lynn or finally overlooking the lake in an expensive housing development. The criticism, if I have one, is that the final act set in the affluence is less satisfying than ther two before the interval. But this is a small niggle. Fast Labour is an original comedy beautifully written, expertly acted and well worth seeing.

Fast Labour
Written by Steve Waters
Directed by Ian Brown

Starring: Craig Kelly
With: Roger Evans, Mark Jax, Kirsty Stuart, Joseph Kloska, Charlotte Lucas
Design: Simon Daw
Lighting: Mark Doubleday
Sound: Mic Pool
Video: Simon Daw and Mic Pool
Running time: Two hours 25 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 21st June 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 3rd June 2008 performance at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London NW3 (Tube: Swiss Cottage)
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