"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God," declares a biblical passage in Matthew 19:23-26. In Chris MacDonald's slick, provocative, and generally stirring debut play Eye of a Needle, in place of rich men there are homosexuals from Jamaica, Uganda, and Nigeria; instead of the kingdom of God, we have modern England, with its scaremongering tabloids, institutional racism, and xenophobic populism.
The acknowledged irony of this comparison is made unremittingly clear, however, with one of the many asylum seekers calling out this failed utopian nation, towards the end of the play: "Britain is not so glorious. Britain is not heaven." What went before this was a full-blooded, yet nuanced elaboration on this point. It takes from open wounds too, drawing on familiar newspaper stories and the case studies of asylum applicants from sources such as gay rights charity Stonewall.
From the eye of the storm, the play is based in the UK Border Agency's underfunded, understaffed offices: a generic public purgatory that evokes a waiting room, football stand, and death row all at once. There aren't even enough staples to attach files together, or - as tensions flare up between the young, dilettantish, living-for-the-weekender Laurence and his cantankerous and cynical mentor Ted - enough to assault a colleague with.
The plot centres on the development of shy English civil servant Laurence, played by newcomer Nic Jackman, who is handed a high-profile case after a year at work. Up until then, he was content to arrive at work late and snack at the most inappropriate occasions, and coldly follow orders from above. But after meeting gay rights campaigner Natale - in a towering performance from Ony Uhiara - responsibilities become problematic.
This theme of responsibility is something that Eye of a Needle deals with deftly. Does responsibility lie with the heart, as Laurence intimately discovers, or - as Ted claims, defending UK citizens - is responsibility solely dictated by your stated job requirements? Are you responsible for every person that you come into contact with, as Natale demands, or can you draw a line between work and life, as the duty solicitor Caroline poignantly ponders.
There is astute commentary too on the matrix of politics, sexuality, and race, when Caroline's decision to offer pro-bono work to the media-friendly Natale is called in to question, or when Ted suggests his preferred public image to be bumbling rather than ruthless. Though the play is also punctuated with moments of levity, such as when Ted describes his penis in the style of Malcolm Tucker's perverse poetry: "an anaconda strangling a man in a polo neck."
The set counterposes a stained urinal on one side, with the dishevelled office-cum-important document black hole on the other, but in MacDonald's Kafkaesque nightmare, it seems immigrants can't be sure which side takes the piss more. Emails arrive in their hundreds, the phone is ringing before you even take seat, but Eye of a Needle doesn't need to shout: it is best as a silent, yet compelling scream.
Less successful are the choreographed surreal interludes that attempt to evoke the hectic dance of life, but the idea of these musical chairs is perhaps better than the execution, while the decision to cast the same male actor to play three different asylum seeker is questionable. Nonetheless, this is an intelligent and imposing debut, stabbing pin pricks into a withering institution.
Eye of a Needle runs at the Southwark Playhouse until Saturday 20 September.Suggest a correction