When theatre attempts to represent people who give no fucks about their lives being represented on the stage – because they’re never going near one anyway – it can feel like a massive impasse. And this fundamentally flawed genre of ‘issue’ drama is fast becoming one of my bÃªte noires. Yes, a theatre might welcome a BAME writer here or there, put on a play set somewhere rough with non-CIS characters but, seriously, what’s the point if it’s still in the gift of a posh white male cultural gatekeeper and played to an audience packed with people whose relationship to the issues is theoretical at best? Well intentioned it may be, but like Tom Hiddleston’s gloriously awful Golden Globes speech, the tone is self-congratulatory. Good intentions aren’t always enough: sometimes who you are matters, or what you say won’t play.
But, on rare occasions, none of that does matter and you know the intention, and the gesture, of the play is right. I can’t really explain it: I know it in the same way I know the difference between a guy telling me a dirty joke because he’s comfortable I’m on the same wavelength and the other kind of unwelcome dirty-joke telling. The joke’s the same; intention is everything.
Katherine Soper’s precise, tender yet unsentimental writing puts Wish List safely on the right side of the debate. Her success is down to the dignity and humanity she affords her central character, the 19-year-old Tamsin, whose obvious potential has been wiped out by her mother’s death and her younger brother’s poor mental health. From physics-loving grammar school girl to box packer, Soper dignifies Tamsin, not by making a meal of her heroic endurance, but by simply seeing her as a human being. And it marks out Soper as a writer of real promise.
Put upon as she is, Tamsin isn’t a broiling mass of rage; I imagine most young carers aren’t. She’s getting on with trying to work through the double-bind reality of her life. Soper drives this home with beautiful restraint, from the un-moaned about pain from Tamsin’s boots and papercuts and her unexpressed, inarticulate, but oh-so-real love for her brother to the subtle, ironic mirroring of her employer’s mantra that her only limitations are the ones she sets for herself with the reality of the exterior forces slowly destroying her.
This clear-eyed and delicate character building is helped along by a staggeringly good performance by Erin Doherty, who captures Tamsin’s kindness and sparky potential, but also the annihilation of hope in a young adult who, charged with too much responsibility, can’t allow themselves to dream of a better life. The awkward, joyful rendition of Meatloaf’s I will Do Anything for Love makes the play worth seeing alone, closely followed by the bumbling sweetness of her blooming friendship with co-worker Luke, played with fizzing energy by Shaquille Ali-Yebuah.
Matthew Xia’s clear and dynamic direction resists overloading the scenes with too much emotional weight and allows the characters’ restraint and self-limitation to speak quietly for itself – even if a few odd moments feel too on-the-nose and over-wrought, inviting in the kind of pity the play wants to deny. And Ciaran Cunningham’s lighting and Giles Thomas’s sound design do a great job of lifting the play above kitchen sink grimness by adding warmth and energy, although the set, while clever, felt more literal. The sorry grubbiness of the siblings’ flat felt like another invitation to pity.
Otherwise, its general absence of pity is why Wish List never gets close to moving you to tears – and is all the better for it. Like Tamsin, it’s too precise, restrained and dignified for weeping and wailing. The world’s Tamsins have no use for theatregoers’ tears.
In the end, it’s also honest with its hopeful ambivalence: Tamsin’s tiny resolution to ‘make it through’ is heroic, but barely uplifting when everything we’ve seen in the world points to the fact she’s already defeated. Like the constantly shifting targets of her employer, nothing she does will ever be enough.
Wish List is on at the Royal Court until 11th February 2017. Click here for more details.