Allocated neighbouring rooms in a London hostel, Irena (Debra Baker) and Amy (Tori Allen-Martin) make for an unlikely pair of pals. One’s an ex-teacher from Poland, now struggling to move forward with a zero-hour contract in an unnamed e-commerce distribution warehouse; the other, a recovering drug addict from Scotland, is young, brash, sweet and unknowingly humorous. One is worldly and maternal, the other is artless, over-trusting, and barely able to take care of herself… let alone her own child.
Both have been through some dark days, and both have been let down. Both have seen hardened circumstances and bad men, and both are treading a perilous track towards a better life. Honest hard-worker Irena has saved up £570 for a deposit on a studio (a forgivable financial anachronism) and Amy – as she blithely reveals in interview – is no longer on “first name terms with speed”. The charm of WRETCH lies in how both central characters are so easily able to find common ground and offer mirror-image levels of support: Amy, in offering to pay a visit to Irena’s partner in her native Warsaw – “Want me to Megabus over and fuck him up for you?” – and Irena heading to Amy’s bad-influence boy to bribe him into staying away.
Our unlikely friends celebrate the power of perseverance, and there’s a spirit and optimism bursting through this production that goes against its drab, desperate, wipe-clean-vinyl-coated setting. And there’s a clear reason for that. Before getting into the hands of Interval Productions, WRETCH was built on interviews with homeless women at the Whitechapel Mission, conducted by playwright Rebecca Walker. From this platform, the one-act piece is ripe in interactions that are, at once, unexpected and utterly plausible; its relationships are built on, if not a common knowledge, then at least a common desire to let things go. This stance bleeds through in Irena’s reaction to Amy’s “Irish” accent, which she recognises from the film Trainspotting. “Dublin in this film just like Warsaw,” Irena recalls. Amy accepts the observation without criticism, comment or mockery.
Upon the guts and honesty of her interviews, Walker has layered some cutting one-liners that bring a certain showiness to the desperation of the halfway house. While foxes engage in screaming intercourse outside, punctuated by the reliable two-hour burst of dance music from upstairs, wide-eyed Amy reviews the local restaurants: “Chicken shops are pretty much the same. Bright lights. Chicken.” Despite a bad week in emergency accommodation in Hackney, Amy is incredible native. She initials her cosmetics, as if permanent marker provides a force-field against thieves, and pays no heed to Irena’s optimistically-expressed warning: “Fridge here is like magic box. Everything in it disappears”.
It’s an ambitious piece, one that tackles homelessness, gender inequality, immigration, petty crime, friendship, loneliness, drug abuse, Russian literature, social media privacy settings, recovery, relapse, house prices, labour conditions, sexual favours, middle management motivational metaphors and much, much more. In just 70 minutes, Interval Productions have pushed the model a little bit too far by adding a handful of songs into the mix. WRETCH isn’t a musical; the first song, unannounced, unexpected and delivered after the lights go down on the first scene, seems to present a character at her most natural – singing out of waning hope and the dregs of ambition. Allen-Martin has one beast of a voice – all belting crescendos, a voice of pained, soaring passion – but it’s mostly lost under a backing track that has crept into the forefront. In the final song, when Allen-Martin turns her back to the audience to address her new friend, there’s a moment where it’s impossible to determine whether we’re at the mercy of tender, deliberate silence, or an old-fashioned technical fault. Here, Interval Productions, too, have found themselves in something of a halfway house, stuck between their ambition and their potential.
WRETCH was on at Vault festival. Click here for more details.