Arcola Theatre, London
Originating from the potentially poisonous ink wells of a practising social worker (Judith Jones) and campaigning writer and journalist Beatrix Campbell, this play turns out to have more to recommend it than I was expecting. This is largely because of some excellent performances from actors more familiar (to this reviewer at least) from their work on staple TV shows like The Bill (the versatile Andrew Paul) and Eastenders (the wonderful Lindsey Coulson).
The action or lack thereof revolves around a kind of druggy Royle Family. Somebody is usually skinning up as they recline on their well-used sofas, lost in a haze of smoke as the spliff (or the crack pipe) is ceremoniously passed around. The telly is always on. A hole is blasted in the living room ceiling and the lighting rig peeps through. A danger-red backdrop forewarns of what lies within.
Instead of the spirited Carol Jackson I remember from the days when I would admit to watching EastEnders, we have the washed up and neglectful Mandy. She would never work down the laundrette and look after all those kids on her own like Carol once did. When things get too much for her – which is most of the time – she seeks oblivion, gets someone to turn the music up and sways in her tracksuit. All that’s left of Carol is the peppering of her dialogue with the occasional ‘slag!‘ and the obligatory ‘faamily!‘ Katie Wimpenny is superb as Chantelle, the teenage mum-to-be white ghetto girl. And her ‘baby father’ and resident drug dealer Dwayne is played with real swagger by the impressive Nicholas Beveney. The pair of them had me convinced from the off, and looked and sounded like they’d made a wrong turn down Arcola Street and wandered into the theatre by mistake.
But for all their efforts to achieve the kind of authenticity the writers evidently crave, I couldn’t help but wonder at the source of this essentially sordid depiction of working class life. The text seemed to spring less from the people of Hackney, where the play is a little too self-consciously situated in this production, than from a generalised mood of despair. This seems to be combined with a disappointment with the trajectory of a once progressive politics the authors no longer recognise. Onto which is grafted this tale of ever worsening urban deprivation and despair for a workless and apparently helpless ‘orphaned class’ (as the accompanying brochure would have it). This seems to be the signature theme of liberal-left writers at the moment. It is as if the deprivation of the few is made to stand for a wider disaffection of their own. Or alternatively as they would have it, their ‘troubles expose the state of the nation’.
This theme certainly titillates the audience and strikes a chord with the critics, seemingly regardless of the quality of the theatre. A willingness to emote and bear witness to the tragic and hopeless lives of the unfortunate is enough. ‘Only the stonehearted could remain unaffected,’ declared the Stage, and ‘if you have a social conscience, this is unmissable’ insisted the reviewer at the UK Theatre Network, rather incongruously. The critic at Metro described it as ‘politicised theatre’. Not political theatre, note. That summed up for me the way the writers seem intent on drawing attention to an ‘issue’ and raising an apparently lacking awareness of the lives depicted, but to no great effect (though some affect, perhaps). They fail to engage in argument, or provoke the audience’s anger at the injustice of poverty. They can only move us to tears (all except for the stonehearted folk like me of course).
There is a tradition of writers, artists and documentary makers drawing people’s attention to the plight of those living on the margins of society. Cathy Come Home is an example of how this kind of work can raise public consciousness and actually have a material impact on people’s lives. But today this sort of thing is more problematic because every social problem is almost inevitably writ large as a symptom or expression of a wider malaise. To which the natural response is resignation rather than mobilisation. You can try to tackle poverty but how do you fight malaise? No wonder the characters end up mouthing the relentlessly soul-sapping prejudices of the writers, and spiral inevitably toward the final tragedy of the piece. Blame thinks it is a kitchen sink drama, but is actually somewhere between Greek tragedy and dystopian farce. This is a script written not so much by Jones and Campbell, but by circumstance, they seem to be saying.
As I headed home, back down Arcola Street onto Kingsland High Street and into the more familiar Hackney night of restaurants and bars, it seemed a world away from what I’d just seen. I don’t doubt that there are people living lives every bit as desperate and distressing as those depicted on that stage – working in social care, I come across some of them myself. But their peculiar experiences don’t say anything in particular about the moral state of our society. The problem of poverty is bad enough on its own, without turning it into a metaphor for all that is bad and rotten in contemporary social and political culture.