Leon Fleming's new play concerns a brother and sister growing-up and living in Birmingham trapped in the clutches of an uncaring welfare system. The story is told with flasback scences from their childhood, mixed with the contemporary tale of two people being processed by The System TM and trying to survive. It is a grim tale, but not without moments of comedy, but those bittersweet moments come from the past rather than the relentlessly grim present of our protagonists. Their lives now trapped within the uncaring bureaucracy.
The play was staged at The Hope Teatre, a 50 seat studio theatre above the Hope and Anchor pub, and it was heartening to see a full house. These smaller venues are the breeding grounds of talent. This play was a brave choice. I don't want to be too critical because these stories need to be told. I really wanted to like it; the performances of the two actors, Helen Budge as "Her" and James Clay as "Him", and the production overall are excellent, but it left a sour note. If you are actually living in the hellhole of the dull grind of poverty, then turning the misery into a dramatic work that will sell tickets for a nights entertainment is a bittersweet experience.
My opinion of the play is clouded by my personal experience, I am livng in poverty. I couldn't have afforded to attend the performance if I hadn't been reviewing the play for Peace News: the tickets cost £15, with concessions priced at £12. I can't imagine that too many people sharing the lives of the protagonists could afford a ticket. I wonder what message the audience took away?
It made me think, what is the function of theatre? What is this play telling us, the audience, about our function in society? The caring, well meaning, comfortably off, priviledged voyeurs: what will they take from the experience? I am not sure. What does this form of storytelling allow and promote? Catharsis, feeling better about yourself? Are we lucky spectators?
They seem too much like the deserving poor; troubled upbringing, drink and drug abuse/self-medication, underage sex, feckless parents, father not working and uncaring mother, and Northern to boot - ready-made cut-out characters, the kind of peopke who you would expect to be on benefits, and whose lives are falling apart. Of course their lives are terrible, just look at their background
It was very good to see everyday life discussed. The violence of everyday life seems to be overlooked by the Peace movement, which often seems more concerned with distant conflicts than the everyday misery inflicted on people. The everyday violence used to keep everything in order and running smoothly. This play is about this everyday violence, it does look at the beast but I am not sure what positive answers it offers.
I went with my sister to see the performance, and we could both identify with the story of struggling siblings, but they seemed like sterotypes, removed from our lives, superficially so simiiar but easy to see as The Other. We felt that we were looking in, like surveillance officers or journalists reviewing a case, collecting evidence. Look, there they are underage drinking, now telling us that their father was on the dole, and then we see the brother following in his fathers footsteps. "What if one of siblings had worked for the DWP?" is what I kept thinking. The same conflicts could unfold but they wouldn't both seem like the kind of people who "naturally" end up being screwed by red tape if one of them had been in the system, even as a cog..
The play had the feel of a soap opera, as the only redemption comes from within the family. Both characters get a rough ride from the DWP but neither seeks help, advice or support from anyone apart from their family. What about The Birmingham Clainants Union, for instance? They seem like characters in a play, their lives tick all the boxes for a drama but somehow it felt unreal, or removed from me. Like I was watching a soap opera or a dramatised version of Benefit Street.
They have been set up for the fall, they are going to fail, they are flailing about from the start And the hope at the end is very slim for the protagonists.