It’s summer 1999.
Margate’s beaches are packed with day-trippers…. and its hotels filled with Kosovan asylum seekers – including Hanna (Celia Meiras), a survivor of Europe’s most recent genocide.
Hannah (Lisa Payne) is from Margate and bored with life in the rundown seaside town – hanging out with her boyfriend Bull and his prejudiced mates. The only things the two 16-year-olds have in common are their names and their love of singing along to their favourite pop songs.
Sixteen years later, Hanna returns to Margate – this time in search of a Syrian girl she befriended in Kosovo and who may have succeeded in getting across the Channel. The Calais ‘Jungle’ is close and attempts by its residents to reach England fill the local media. Hanna hopes her young friend will be welcome in Margate, but although the town has changed, alongside the coffee bars and vintage shops, there is still an undercurrent of hostility towards the migrants and refugees who are so desperate to enter the UK.
Hannah and Hanna in Dreamland builds on John Retallack’s award-winning 2001 play, Hannah and Hanna.
And for Celia it’s a chance to revisit one of her first major roles out of drama school. ‘It’s 17 years since I first met her,’ says Celia. ‘It was my first big show in terms of being challenged as an actress – it went to all sorts of places and I got seen by all sorts of people. It went on to have another life, but I jumped ship as I didn’t always want to be Hanna, but it did actually continue.’
So when she got a call from John in 2016 asking if she’d be interested in exploring the character again, she jumped at the chance.
‘At that point, it was just exploring, it wasn’t really going to be a job, but I said: “Oh yeah, I love that character!” It’s very unusual to get to play the same character at different ages.’
Although Celia has returned to the role, she is playing opposite a new Hannah.
‘We clicked together so well, and she’s so right for the role. There’s so many times in rehearsal when I’d say: “Do you remember when we used to do this?” And she’d go: “No love, I wasn’t there!”
‘She’s got this fantastic story about going to see the original production at the Margate Theatre Royal, so she saw me and the other actress, Alyson [Coote] in it, and it completely rocked her world and changed her direction in her career.
‘She’s now, among her many other talents, a drama and education professional. And a lot of it was inspired by coming to see this show and going, you can really affect young people and do things that can help them to think differently.’
Given her family background, the part of Hanna is one that Celia can partially identify with.
‘I was born in London and have lived here all my life, but my family are all Spanish. I’m in that weird EU thing – I’ve got my Spanish passport and my English identity.’
So does the play’s subject matter speak to her?
‘Very much so. I’ve always in terms of migrants, economic or political, it’s very hard to change my mind on this. I’m very much for freedom of movement.’
With the Brexit debate rumbling on, the play couldn’t be more timely – it is set just before the EU referendum took place. And Thanet District Council, which covers Margate, has been strongly right-leaning in recent years, with UKIP wrestling overall control twice in the past four years. While the Conservatives are currently the largest group, there is no overall control.
‘The irony is that places like Margate have been injected with huge amounts of EU money,’ says Celia. ‘There’s all this beautiful redevelopment and The Turner [art gallery] – now you walk in and it’s gorgeous. That’s why people are coming to visit and hang out – so much of that is EU money!’
The Dreamland of the title is an amusement park, which was first opened in 1920. By the turn of the century it was in decline and closed in 2003. After laying derelict it was reopened in 2015 and had a further major relaunch in 2017.
‘When we rehearsed the first part of the show I went to Dreamland in about 2001. I remember it being really run down. You’d come into Margate and it had all that nostalgia, but a lot of things were really run down and it looked kind of depressed, and there was this irony to the Dreamland sign – this iconic sign.
‘I can remember walking down the side streets and seeing National Front graffiti and things like that and feeling very intimidated in this area.
‘Now it’s become this place where you get the DFLs - the “down from Londons”, where you can get beautiful houses and start a whole new life down by the sea and you’ve got all this art.
‘Now it’s all been refurbed, you can have this ’50s-style nostalgia day in Dreamland, so it’s all about that kind of where reality and fantasy meet – and that’s in the play as well.
‘Dreamland is in there as a location and as metaphor.’
And Celia can’t believe the changes to Margate since she first went there.
‘Oh my gosh, It’s lovely but it makes me laugh. The first time I went back in 2016 when we did a rehearsed reading and I spent most of the day walking around with my mouth wide open. Now there’s all these micro-breweries, and it’s all very independent and cool, but it’s like, where do real people go to eat and drink?’
Now though she’s looking to get her teeth into the two-hander with Lisa as it goes out on tour.
‘It’s a big one, it’s epic. When it works it’s a proper tour de force!’
HANNAH & HANNA IN DREAMLAND
New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth
Tuesday, October 16