The housing crisis – and the word crisis is no overstatement – is now one of the greatest issues facing the UK. It’s predicted that by 2025 there will be as many private renters as mortgage holders, with housing benefits lining the pockets of even more landlords thanks to the lack of suitable social housing. The pressure is even greater in London, where gentrification advances at terrifying pace and council estates are forced to make way for shiny blocks of “luxury” apartments.
The residents of Focus E15, a hostel run by Newham Council, were among those being pushed out by this devastating tide of capital. Refusing to be evicted without a fight, a group of young mums resisted the council’s decision to sell off social housing, starting a campaign that concentrated attention on an issue spreading far beyond their postcode. A year after the campaign was at its height, FYSA Theatre have collected interviews with those involved, forming a patchwork picture of the ongoing battle for homes.
The theatre is decked out like the stall in Stratford that Focus E15 shares with the Revolutionary Communist Group. Banners hang from the ceiling and posters are tacked to the walls. There’s never any doubt that this is theatre as protest, unabashedly laying out its political position. It’s also theatre as journalism, delivering verbatim the words of the Focus E15 mums and a selection of other key players. Like the company’s previous show The 56, it covers an impressive amount of ground, carefully and seamlessly sewing all of its material together.
We hear about the circumstances that led the mums to Focus E15; the everyday institutional violence that causes them all to echo sadly “I felt like I’d failed as a mum”. We hear about the eviction notices, the rallying together, the protests that swiftly escalate in size and ambition. We also hear from one of the regular activists who took up the Focus E15 cause and from another resident who was galvanised to join the movement. As their anger grows, so does their confidence, empowering them to stick it to the powers that be.
But this is no straightforward triumph of the underdog. Wisely, FYSA intersperse the story of the campaign with snippets of interviews with other individuals involved in this issue: a civil servant, an MP, someone from the Citizens Advice Bureau, an anonymous representative of a housing charity. While the scales are still tipped towards the cause of the Focus E15 mums, the show also acknowledges some of the complexity of the housing crisis, which certainly won’t be solved overnight. Some argue for more houses; others answer that the problem lies with distribution, not supply. Everyone, however, agrees that something needs to be done.
And the Focus E15 mums are doing it. FYSA’s presentation of the piece stresses that this is a campaign that continues to go on – hence all the banners and flyers and the petition on the door. The company don’t always acknowledge the potential pitfalls of verbatim, and there’s a tendency towards potentially problematic neatness in the organising of their material, but they do smartly undercut the moving tale of community resistance that their interviews have crafted. Just as we’re ready to throw our hands in the air and start chanting with the cast, there’s a sobering reminder of the continuing difficulties that these people and so many others face. The battle goes on.