Juana in a Million – Southwark Playhouse Studio – Carole Woddis.

Sometimes the most powerful theatre comes not from prestige institutions or heavy-weight grant-in-aid clients but simply someone feeling they have something so important to say nothing is going to stand in their way.

Vicky Araico Casas’ Juana in a Million is just such a person.

It may just be she, standing in spotlight with drummer/musician Adam Pleeth quietly accompanying her but Casas’ performance blazes with the passion of a performer telling a story that must be told.

The story Mexican born, Casas, tells is that of exploitation of modern migrant workers in London.  Casas tells it through fictional female migrant worker, Juana, arriving in London without papers, passed from `friend’ to friend, sleeping in a room of seven with four beds (they rotate) and slaving away in restaurants, subject to abuse with no form of redress.

Interspersed with Juana’s present day traumas, however, Casas also weaves, via the voice of her mother, the effect still on contemporary Mexicans of the Spanish conquistadors.  It is a story of the past, of the long arm of history reaching into the present as well an evocation of current lives.

With dance, song and speech, Casas magnificently evokes the spirit of conquest, betrayal, vitality from the past, the violence that is modern Mexico’s battle with drugs and the innocence, hope and ultimate disillusionment that arrival in London as an illegal migrant worker presents.  Casas embodies it all in the various characters Juana encounters en route with extraordinary power and virtuoso skill.

Migrant workers have a bad press here in the UK.  But as Juana in a Million so vividly demonstrates, they are some of the city’s most vulnerable workers, subject to oppressive systems of drudgery, sexual harassment and non-payment to which such workers are vulnerable.  Particularly if they are female.

In the end, this Juana is faced with only one course of action to improve her situation here.  And it is the obvious and sexual one.

As a performer, Casas, whirling, pounding the floor and as a kitchen `slave’ caught in repetitive cycles of work is simply mesmerising.

This is a show that educates even as it touches the heart.  As the show’s splendid and hugely informative programme points out, Juana’s predicament epitomises the situation for many in what has until recently remained a largely ignored problem.

At a thoughtful talkback session after the performance last week, Queen Mary College researcher, Cathy Mcllwaine who with other colleagues has just completed a survey, No Longer Invisible: The Latin American Community in London (www.geog.gmul.ac.uk/latinamericansinlondon) pointed out how the community had grown four-fold since the 2001 census.  Juana in a Million if nothing else – and it is much more – gives a voice to those who have and are suffering in this explosion and the human cost.  (see also the Latin American Women’s Rights Service: www.lawrs.org.uk.  And Trust for London: www.trustforlondon.org.uk.)

An Edinburgh Fringe First winner last year, Casas continues to be so.  Her show serves as a worthy opener for Southwark Playhouse’s Studio in their new premises near the Elephant & Castle whilst reminding us of the hidden `slavery’ that underpins `smart’, cosmopolitan London.  Without such workers, tourist haunts, hotels, bars and restaurants would simply grind to halt.  But what a price in human terms such `enjoyment’ for some exacts for others.

To June 15.

For more info, see www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk and www.juanainamillion.com

Carole Woddis © June 4, 2013.