In his book Chavs, Owen Jones gathers statistics and stories to show the systematic ‘demonization of the working class’ over the last forty years. Rigorous, clear, impacting and long overdue, it is also often dry, repetitive and somewhat polemical – something that, happily, the six playwrights’ responses, presented here by Lyric Lounge and Waifs + Strays, are not.
The most accomplished piece of the evening is Up the Royal Borough, where a working class girl from Leyton takes a trip to Chelsea to be interviewed for a job by a conservative MP. Written by Sarah Solemani- writer for the New Statesman and star of BBC3 sitcom Him and Her – the dialogue is clever, convincing and very funny as we see the kind of ‘common sense’ discrimination that we all know happens behind the scenes being forced to awkwardly unpick itself. Director Max Key draws wonderful performances from the remarkable Joana Nastari and hilarious Lucy Briers; both women remain full of contradictions and irreducible to political ideologies, allowing the script to fizz with believable surprises.
Schnapps is set in a supermarket manager’s office where stock room assistant, Michelle, is receiving a ‘disciplinary with written warning’ for ‘allegedly’ stealing a damaged bottle of Archers. Barney Norris’ direction lets the humour feel easy and writer Jake Bruger gets the details of the routine humiliation and rigid hierarchy that surround a minimum wage job spot on. This is assured, engaged writing and as the coiled implications in the offhand final line – the manager casually offers the bottle that has resulted in Michelle’s near dismissal to the assistant manager – are allowed to resonate, the fiction of Britain as a meritocratic society is sharply laughed off stage. A longer and more developed version of this would be very exciting to see.
What these two pieces do so well is show us our social landscape almost by accident. There is no ‘message’ as such, just a careful set up that is allowed to play out; in giving details their true weight, the ordinary contradictions we live every day can are re-investigated and allowed political significance. The balance between witty knowingness and anger make these age-old set ups, with their age-old consequences, feel fresh; less about ‘class’ than about life itself – which, of course, is the only way to get plays about issues such as equality and fairness in Britain today made and seen. Both, given the time and investment they deserve, could become full length plays of power and importance.
Want for Nothing is set in a Cath Kidsoned kitchen. In ‘political theatre’ accusations of ‘preaching to the choir’ are frequent and this piece attempts a rare thing; challenging the actual audience- not taking on the wrongs of an abstracted idea of society, but of the very people who are watching. Brad Birch writes with intelligence and wit, taking a familiar left-wing argument and elegantly twisting it. With the smugness of people who know they are on the ‘right’ side, Martin and Chrissy discuss the vandalised youth centre in the estate close to the more upmarket area where they live, wring their hands at society and the hypocrisies of their friends and generally revel in their own ethical high-mindedness. This builds to an ideological shift so skilfully managed that it seems shockingly inevitable. Yet, although thought provoking, the piece is underdeveloped dramatically; more of an essay or short story than a play.
An Education, which was well received at this years Latitude festival (with the title Joe), is written by Steven Hevey and directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward. While well scripted, with some great dialogue and suitably energetic acting by Matt Ingram as the laddish Ricky, it lacks the shifting levels and complexities of the others; the shape of the story and its outcome are predictable from the outset. Last Man on The Heygate also suffers from a similar problem. It errs on the side of stereotype, using stock characters and predictable shape. A lack of clarity in Richard Fitch’s direction also make it seem less finished than the others. Somewhere Between the News Clip and the Gossip Section is an impressively performed piece of spoken word; with elegance and confidence it takes a familiar set up and starts to unpick it, but remains more of an interesting starting point than a finished work.
To expect writers to tackle such a complex set of issues in fifteen minutes in a scratch-like/ rapid response environment is a very big ask and the plays, for all their flaws, are impressive in their ambition. There is a lot of talent on show here and if the time, money and resources were found to develop these pieces, the results could be excellent. If Jones’ book leaves us with just two question – how has this been allowed to happen and what can be done about it? By tackling very particular scenarios and fighting to keep their many complicating ambiguities and nuances intact, these plays, to their credit, offer up many more.