How do you review a show you took part in? Especially when that participation was unexpected – because you never take part in anything, you hate taking part – and ends up being quite transformative?
Working Class Dinner Party is part of the Marlborough Theatre’s Young, Queer and Skint season (other shows include Katy Baird’s Workshy). The title of course is ironic (what’s less working class than a dinner party?), though the intention is a noble – indeed, important – one: a discussion of what it means to be working class in the arts, particularly theatre, where everyone seems to be middle or upper class. (At the start, they do a headcount of how many people in the room identify as working class: it’s less than a quarter, I’d guess. ‘Welcome to theatre!’ jokes Scottee, one of the hosts). On a day when George Osborne was announced as editor of the Evening Standard – proving yet again the most important talent to have is to be born to rich parents – it feels a depressingly relevant topic.
The idea is a simple one: the three hosts, artist Scottee (in a splendid Working Class Homo t-shirt), Bryony Kimmings (who made the much-acclaimed Fake it Till You Make It), and Birmingham-based creative Selina Thompson talk and, when people want to speak, they simply come sit at the table to join in. There will, they promise, be pizza.
I suspect at these things it usually takes a while for anyone to feel comfortable enough to comment, so when, almost immediately, 3 black women join the table, everyone – including the hosts – looks slightly shocked. It changes the dynamic immediately, and for the better: it opens out the discussion from the start. It helps that all three women are eloquent and funny, so they keep the conversation flowing, rather than stilting it, which is always a risk when you get people not used to public speaking suddenly in the spotlight – though one of them is so confident and charismatic I correctly peg her as an actress from the off, and by the end of the evening, she feels like one of the hosts. They should definitely hire her for the next one.
Thompson has initially said she won’t talk much about race (‘that’s a discussion for another round table’) but with four black women at the table, inevitably the conversation turns to racial issues, to the experience of being a black working class woman – not just how it shapes your art, but the choices that make any art possible (one of the women talks about abandoning dreams to go to art school, but being able to study fashion, because her parents viewed that as a ‘trade’: at least she would learn to sew). The night is richer for it: so, we talk not just about art, but life; for instance, the Actress (I didn’t get any of the contributors’ names, I’m not sure anyone gave them) mentions the microaggressions she encounters as mother of a white-looking child (‘people keep asking me where his mum is’).
Then something weird happens. They are talking about being working class at university, and– as someone who went to Glasgow, a university with a high percentage of working class (and politically aware) students, my experience was a little different to theirs – and I think, ooh, I could say something here. Of course I won’t – I don’t join in at these things! Nobody cares what I have to say. But… I kind of want to say it. And then, as if in some trance (and sober – I can’t even blame the booze), I find myself getting up, and sitting next to Scottee, and saying my piece.
Now: I hate audience participation. And, in no small part, this is because I often hate audiences. I’ve been going to the theatre in London (and now Brighton) regularly for the last 15 years, and I still mostly don’t feel like I belong there. I’ve often found myself wondering if I’m seeing the same play as everyone else: if you’ve ever been in a room full of people who gasped at the word ‘cunt’ and thought, ‘wait, did I miss something?’, you might recognise the feeling. It’s laughing in recognition at something when around you people are gleefully shocked at how outrageously exaggerated it is; it’s watching People Like You portrayed on stage when you’re sitting in audience of People Not Like You. (I mention Simon Stephens’ play Port – which I hated, mainly because I felt it was pandering to the middle class audience at the National, and which I might have felt differently about had I seen it in a different venue – and my comments are greeted with several loud howls of agreement.)
It feels odd, then, to be not only taking part, but to feel reasonably comfortable doing so. Usually, in any kind of theatre crowd, I feel like an imposter. I have many (lovely) friends who make and write about theatre, but I never really believe I belong in those circles; my access is a borrowed pass that could be revoked at any moment. I’m the loud, drunk, fat girl who is talking too much, taking up too much space, the woman who is all edges in a world where other people are educated into smoothness. (It’s worth noting that I have felt like that even on those rare occasions when I have been neither drunk nor fat (although I’m pretty much always loud). It’s my innate state: you can’t ever polish me enough to get that Oxbridge sheen). Even here, in such a welcoming space, I can’t quite shake those inhibitions: more than once, I go to leave the table, feeling that I’ve had my turn, used up my time, and Scottee gently stops me.
Kimmings – who talks about the National so much it becomes the running joke of the evening – talks eloquently on working in such a middle class space. The topics are wide ranging, from code switching to how to make working class art without it being exploitative; creating inclusion and accessibility; whether engaging in art somehow takes you away from your class. I talk about my own experience of the Scottish arts scene – Glasgow in particular, where theatres like the Citizens and the Tron are grounded in their communities, and where going to the theatre never felt like the preserve of the middle classes.
The Actress and I talk most out of the contributors, the rest of the guests coming and going, and most making interesting points. There’s – inevitably – a #notallmen moment, when a posh white boy feels the need to explain how he, too, knows the pain of feeling isolated, since he was mocked at stage school for being well-spoken, and he is shut down with varying degrees of politeness. Thompson reiterates a comment she returns to throughout the evening, that we’re talking about structures of power, not demonising individuals, but things become slightly fractious – Posh Boy frustrated that we’re not taking him seriously enough, the rest of us annoyed that he fails to see that, just for tonight, it’s Not All About Him. Eventually Scottee – who panels the discussion with welcoming humour throughout – reminds him that we’re here to talk about specifically working class experiences, and he finally, reluctantly, shuts up. When you’re used to the world accommodating you, it must be a shock to find yourself in a space where nobody is inclined to.
Normally I want everything to be over, faster: my general belief is that most plays (and all movies) could be 20 minutes shorter – but I didn’t want this to end: hell, I wanted to invite these people home with me, get the wine out, talk about this thing for hours. Class in theatre is a bugbear of mine (in part because I’m continually told by people who went to Oxbridge how class doesn’t really matter) and being in a room full of smart, articulate people saying, actually, yes, it does, is exhilarating.
‘We won’t solve class tonight – you’ll still have that working class chip on your shoulder at the end of it!’ Scottee joked, and he was right. I left elated, but in the course of the short walk home all my insecurities – a lifetime of ‘who am I to have a say?’ – resurfaced. Someone had been filming – oh, God, had they filmed me? (Please no). I was hunched in my chair, so I probably looked squat and weird and red faced. Had I talked too much? (Maybe). Had I interrupted any of the black women, thereby illustrating that, while my working class credentials are impeccable, my white privilege is still in full force (I don’t think so: I hope not). Had I seemed loud and drunk (since by the end of the evening, I was drinking prosecco cadged from Kimmings out of a pint glass, that’s a firm yes).
We didn’t come up with any great plan or magical solution; I’m not sure we even changed any minds. But for an hour, in a little theatre in a room above a pub, I felt my voice – my Northern, woman’s, working class voice – was valued, and valid. And that felt nothing short of extraordinary.