On Thursday the 21st I had the pleasure of watching and catching up with Ellie Searston, a member of the cast from the Lace Market’s performance of Hannah and Hanna. It’s safe to say I was completely blown away by the two actresses who played the title characters.

Set against the backdrop of the Kosovan War in 1999, the play shows the general hostility by the English public that occurred when 2,000 Kosovan refugees were given sanctuary in Margate, Kent for a year.

The play is set around two girls, both sixteen with similar interests but from different sides of the tracks. Hannah (Rhiannon Jones) has lived her whole life in Margate and finds the place utterly abysmal. She sees the sudden influx of refugees as an invasion. Especially when she learns that one shares her name and makes it her mission to make her feel unwelcome. However, as time passes, she gets to know the Kosovan Hanna (Ellie Searston) and they bond.

Ellie said: “So many people are oblivious that other individuals are sentient beings. As an actor it’s my job to reveal the truth so that these stories can continue to be passed around.

“At the end of the day Hanna still has to deal with the realities of her life- a war ravaged country and sexual abuse.”

Despite the play being criticised for “simplifying” issues abroad I felt that the angle it took with the karaoke songs and light hearted cheers break up the heavy narrative , making intimidating topics like politics, that the younger generation may veer away from, more accessible. It should be noted that the original play by John Retallack was written for a much younger adolescent audience.

People have a tendency to patronise young people. The play isn’t mocking important subjects but rather opening them up for debate for the next generation.

Despite its cheerful tone, it has a dark contrast which showed a critical depiction of the easiness of the Western world compared to the horrors still occurring elsewhere.

We also discussed whether or not the play had a happy ending, which was a controversial point. Although the two girls are reunited, one must still go back home and leave the other, Kosovan Hanna, to fend for herself. At the end of the day Hanna still has to deal with the realities of her life- a war ravaged country and sexual abuse. Her and her family’s futures are unclear with a modern audience perhaps being aware that it would be another eight years until Kosovo gained independence in 2008.

“Ellie agreed that the harsh reality is that refugees have to grow up faster than other children as they have a lot to come to terms with earlier on in life.”

“Experiences have a massive part in the fabric of who you become as a human being… You could have been anyone, you could have been that person in that situation.”

We went on to talk about the notion of history repeating itself as well as the morals the audience should take away from the performance. Me and Ellie both felt the National Front that is depicted in the play had unnerving parallels with Nazi Germany and the recent success of the far right (*cough cough* Trump).

The best we can do is wake ourselves up to it and be more empathetic as people. Keep telling stories, keep growing and breaking down boundaries. Re-evaluate what you think and pass on the torch to others- especially those who can’t pass it on for themselves.”

I was curious about the amount of research she had to do for the part. Apparently she watched many documentaries on he situation at the time, especially people’s own reactions to the conflict. It was also shocking how convincing her accent was, which she researched by listening to a Kosovan baby trying to speak English for five hours. – That’s commitment!

So, what did she think of the progress of the characters? English Hannah is seen to soften and become more tolerant, she comes to appreciate Margate more. Kosovan Hanna can be described as very fragile and resilient at the beginning of the play who reacts  emotionally out of instinct. Her reality is a shock to her and she flies off the handle because her picturesque view of England has come crashing down.

They both definitely get a reality check.

Ellie went on to say that she felt the director, Wayne Parkin, cast the girls really well. There was an age gap of four years between them; English Hannah is played by a 16 year old whereas Kosovan Hanna is a lot older in real life, which helped develop the mentality of the characters in the play. Kosovan Hanna has to come to grips with constant change which ages her, making her appear older and wiser before her time. Ellie agreed that the harsh reality is that refugees have to grow up faster than other children as they have a lot to come to terms with earlier on in life.

Her advice to anyone interested in pursuing a career in theatre is simple- “Keep telling stories. Keep being human.  Do what feeds you and what wakes you up and don’t buy into other people’s expectation of what you should do.”

With an amazing vocal range and breath-taking acting, I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of Ellie in the future.

Esther Kearney

Image courtesy of Lace Market Theatre.

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