‘Hiding Heidi’ by Golden Age Theatre Company is described as a ‘tale of love and hate in Stoke on Trent’ but you would be forgiven for thinking it was a staged version of the newest episode of Black Mirror. What starts out as a kitchen sink drama questioning the state of a post Brexit Britain turns into an extraordinary and surrealist piece of work that compares the immigration office with the Gestapo and Stoke on Trent with West Berlin.
Dorothy (Maxine Howard) needs a carer so her son Ralph (Richard de Lisle) illegally hires Heidi (Siobhan Ward), a nurse from Lichtenberg who hasn’t been able to return to work at her hospital since the Brexit result. Dorothy is skeptical as she sees Heidi as a ‘foreigner’ but after a short while grows fond of her and even defends her honour when faced with a racist neighbour complaining about how many foreigners there are still left even though she ‘thought they were all meant to have gone home by now’. Love blossoms between Heidi and Ralph and together they must overcome the obstacles that face them, from the nosy woman they share their house with to the looming threat of Heidi’s possible deportation.
From here the play twists the reality of the world it has created into a dystopia showing the possible dire consequences of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. A fictional group called the UIAEO (or the vowellers) are immigration officers who enforce a fine for not registering a foreigner living in your house, encourage informers to tell them if anyone not from Britain is living in their neighbours homes and eventually hunt down anyone their whistleblowers tell them shouldn’t be in Britain.
Writer and director Ian Dixon Potter sets up a brilliant three way dynamic with our main characters. In Dorothy we have the leave voter, Ralph the remain and Heidi the one who is affected most. Given the heavily political nature of the play it could have easily subsided into a lecture but the complexity of the main characters saved it from such a fate. The mundane and surreal are paired together brilliantly, mainly through the character of Dorothy who tickled the audience constantly with lines like ‘according to The Daily Mail Britain is great again’ and suggesting that vegetarianism is an eating disorder.
It is lovely watching the change in Dorothy from being old fashioned and slightly racist at the beginning of the play to showing deep regret for voting leave by the end. It is a tour de force performance from Maxine Howard. She’s a complex character who has to question what she believes in and then stand up for it and it’s a beautiful journey to watch because Howard ignites such empathy from the audience through her performance. Richard de Lisle’s comic timing allows what could have been an annoying character to be charming and Kate Carthy exercises extraordinary skill multi rolling as the ill informed racist neighbour and Nazi immigration officer.
‘Hiding Heidi’ uses a magnifying glass to look into people’s experience of Brexit’s consequences through the lens of a bleak future. This is an important play because this bleak future is ahead of us and in the same way the Greeks would stage tragedies to warn society that their actions have consequences Ian Dixon Potter is grabbing his audience and shaking them to say ‘wake up! This is real and look at what could happen if we don’t do something.’
It is provocative in an unusual way. Starting off with a picture of reality that is so easily recognised and slowly twisting the picture into one of complete despair allows the audience to be open in dealing with the questions that are being put forward to them. What makes you first think that the play is being too forward in it’s politics you realise is a necessity for the style of the piece to work. This is a brave piece of writing that is saved from being preachy by the level of skill in how each character is written and the performances of the actors on stage. Thought provoking and funny, entertaining and chilling, ‘Hiding Heidi’ is quite an achievement.