Theatre review: Pepper and Honey by Notnow Collective at Chapter Arts Centre
Sarah Morgan Jones
There are three types of migrants, according to Ana.
Those who flee war and horror, in fear of their lives, leaving land and life behind them going anywhere that offers them safety.
Then there are the economic migrants, those who know that the only way to improve their lot is to get out of dodge and send money home.
They are miserable, she says, they are never happy. But Who Would Be Happy leaving their family behind in order to make money, and why is it that in this world – where money is really no object if we were just a little less conservative about it, a little more socialist – that a mother must leave her children to serve the obscenely rich, or that a father must travel overseas in order to sell his soul to the capitalist devil?
Then there are the adventurous migrants – those for whom the nagging thought that There Is More To Life Out There overwhelms the seemingly idyllic life on a Croatian island. Those for whom Let’s Try It is a good enough reason, after all, how many Brits are there in Spain? What’s good for the goose and all that.
Pepper and Honey, which was brought to Chapter Arts Centre by the Not Now Collective, is ostensibly the story of the last sort of migrant. A migrant not a refugee.
A woman who wants to travel and find a life beyond her grandma’s garden, a woman who wants to escape the tragic label of orphan, a woman who can bake exquisite cakes and patisserie, so why on earth would she not want to find a wider audience?
Although never referred to directly, Brexit is the spanner in the works in this incredibly touching one woman show. While the UK seemingly aimed a nuclear bazooka at both feet at once, it failed to recognise the collateral damage in the shape of women like Ana who had been here for years, shifting into work and accommodation as best they could, providing the cakes for the fat capitalists, with a smile on their face, double-jumping through hoops, trying to be the ‘good migrant’.
She has money, she has skills, and she has charisma, she has a whopping great heart and a dream to back up her artistry. She has something Brits want, and yet the Brits don’t want her.
Even with the cash, the skills and the charisma, Ana feels, is made to feel, that nothing she has to offer will ever really be good enough, there will always be more hoops to jump through, she will never be able to call Britain home.
No matter which category they fall into, migrants in the UK face ugly challenges, and although this play was written under the growing shadow of the hostile environment, designed specifically to put people off coming here, its relevance today when that shadow has virtually blocked out the sun is even stronger.
In recent weeks, when we have seen the mass exodus of Ukrainians from their homes, fleeing the very same tyranny that sent the Syrians running, the stark realities of who we might welcome and who we won’t has become embarrassingly apparent.
Ana was played by Tina Hofman, a woman with Croatian roots, who switches with elegant ease between granddaughter Ana in AnytownUK and her grandma, ‘Baka’ Ana back home on the island, the matriarch with a sense of belonging, hiraeth you might say.
Hofman engages the audience with a beautiful physicality and a deep steady gaze, appealing to each one of us with an eye contact from which we cannot flinch. With the donning of a scarf or the shedding of a belt, and a stylised movement, she stoops and straightens, shapeshifting through the generations, telling both sides of the cross-continental story.
Young Ana has lived in the UK for 12 years and wants to seize the opportunity to put down some roots, to open her patisserie, to live the life she has carved out for herself.
Old Ana wants her granddaughter to do what previous generations have done, what she herself has done, and build herself a home with her bare hands on the adjoining land, to come back from the UK, to walk the same path and make pepper biscuits.
Without her grandmother’s approval in Croatia and facing the bullshit bureaucracy in the UK, Ana is finding it difficult to put down roots.
Old Ana keeps sending her pepper biscuits believing that the same tactic worked in bringing home her sailor husband. And you know, if the onstage preparation of these biscuits, with cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg and ground walnuts and pepper, lots of pepper, so much pepper was anything to go by, there is no way to resist.
In an hilarious roustabout baking session where the neat composure of young Ana is replaced by the frivolous flour flinging Croatian speaking bucket cookery of Baka, dragging the audience into the game, the sensuous smells of the spices, the tickle of pepper, the mouth-watering enticement makes plain the dilemma between tradition and transgression, between stepping out and stepping up.
This joyful event is thrown into contrast when Ana takes over making the same biscuits in a rare expression of anger and frustration at yet another baffling Home Office letter, warning us that we should never bake in a rage as the bitterness seeps into the biscuits.
Tradition and freedom
But on the whole, it is with patience and love that young Ana holds her ground, resisting yet embracing tradition and striking out on her own. As the biscuits keep coming and the cooking takes place on stage, the corresponding women defend their positions, fight for the old life and the new, for tradition and for freedom.
The set, designed by Eleanor Field, is a kitchen, the heart of any home, which works equally well as the above-shop apartment and the hand-built home in Croatia, the traditions stretch across the chasm between the sunshine simplicity and the cool and unwelcoming, anonymous city life which can be packed up in a suitcase at a moments notice.
A kitchen… with a fishing boat as a backdrop which offers both a place for Baka Ana to look longingly out to sea, awaiting her prodigal husband, her long lost daughter, her wandering granddaughter, as well as providing a sail onto which the language differences can be deciphered by projected surtitles.
A powerful and haunting soundtrack with music and song composed by Serbian born Jovana Backovic underpins the narrative transitions while subtly effective sound design by Adam P McCready takes us across time and location.
Indeed, the team behind this one woman show brings experience which oozes style and truly represents the quality of the Notnow Collective which was originally founded in 2015 by two Croatian artists in a bid to place multilingual voices and narratives of migrant artists centre-stage.
By the end of the piece, despite being wrapped up in Ana’s optimism in the face of endless bureaucratic challenges and ensconced in the tantalising smells and tastes of a tradition shared, I couldn’t help wondering why anyone would want to come to the UK.
You can find the recipe for the all-important pepper biscuits (they are delicious) and more information about the production and the Notnow Collective team here
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