“There’s a war going on.” When Daniel Hoffman-Gill’s new play Kings gets into its passionate final movement, its timeliness couldn’t be clearer. Set in Somerville House, a Nottingham facility offering sheltered accommodation to men with difficulties, the play takes its time establishing the camaraderie, collaboration and love that binds together an unstable group. But under it all seethes the writer’s anger at the cuts making these self-sustaining communities untenable.
Hoffmann-Gill’s background in St. Ann’s is obvious in characters that not only sound authentically local but are inextricably intertwined with the clubs, shops and support services of Nottingham. The current residents of Somerville House include an Elvis impersonator (James Warrior) doing the rounds of the local British Legion and Rotary clubs; Barry (Chris Lund), a young man with Down’s Syndrome who visits for his meals; Wayne (Joe Doherty), preparing to move to his own place but first seen having a fit; Big Dave (Tim Baggaley), an alcoholic Falklands veteran and amputee; and Kirky (Dominic Grove), the group’s ‘stress ball’ who is too scared to deal with the outside world himself and devotes himself to serving the rest.
The characters are unsentimental and complex. There is no attempt at political correctness in the group’s language to describe one another, notwithstanding Barry’s repeated pleas to ‘stop swearing’. The Playhouse continues to do sterling work in casting actors with disabilities, here employing Baggaley and Lund in their first professional roles rather than asking established actors to feign disability, and this frees the company to explore the characters as people rather than as conditions. The characters may have disabilities, but they also make bad choices and have flaws, and they own these as they support one another.
The thin plot – the group preparing for Wayne’s departure – offers several opportunities to see the men dealing with day-to-day life, from agonising over how to present the communal Jaffa cakes to creating a makeshift helmet for Wayne from a cushion. The shifts in mood are extreme; at one point, Kirky and Big Dave are celebrating a ramshackle raid on a costume store in which they managed to steal several ‘alternative’ false arms for Dave (including a Predator arm, a giant vole, and an enormous KitKat finger); then before too long, Dave is hiring a sex worker (Sophie Ellerby) to help him commit seppuku in a scene that is both traumatic and hilariously inept. The most touching moments come from the extremes to which the group go to support one another. When filming a goodbye video for Wayne, Kirky improvises a boom mike from a broomstick and the vole’s arm so that Barry can feel involved; when Dave tells the story of how he used to impersonate dinosaurs to make his dying son smile, the group instinctively begin performing their own impressions.
The ‘island’, as one character calls it, is a space of protection, and the play’s anger emerges against the cuts that threaten these refuges. But then the production changes tack; the rage that Kirky expresses against the funding cuts is turned against him by Wayne, who argues that Kirky – the most functional of the group – sets himself up as a human stress ball for the others, and the group come to the realisation that they need to take responsibility for their own lives. The line between government and personal duties of care is blurry, and Kings doesn’t offer any easy answers. In Grove’s sensitive portrayal of Kirky, however, one can see the toll that unsupported care takes on those doing the work. Kirky’s self-appointed role as group organiser is contrasted throughout with that of Sarah (Ellerby), Wayne’s sensitive case worker and the play’s idealisation of the support systems that can lead to independent living. Yet Sarah isn’t merely an ideal, as she builds relationships with the residents that reveal her own need to help.
The play ends on an ambiguous note, as the group say goodbye to Wayne and talk about the meaningfulness of lyrics, before Sarah leads them in a sad, but deeply felt, group sing-a-long of ‘Losing My Religion’, the song that a hospital DJ refused to play for Big Dave when sitting at his son’s deathbed. The rhetoric and anger linger, but Hoffman-Gill ends by suggesting that people can find meaning anywhere, even in the ‘crap songs’ that matter to individuals. In an uncertain time for disability support and assisted living, Kings is a frequently powerful reminder of the humans on the front line of this war.
Kings is on until 30th April 2016. Click here for tickets.