Ever since John Osbourne’s Look Back In Anger in 1956 heralded the age of the ‘kitchen sink’ drama, there has been an ongoing debate about how authentic should the depiction of the ‘underclasses’ be on stage. Nearly a decade later, Edward Bond’s Saved sent shockwaves with its unflinching depiction of teenagers, while Arnold Wesker’s Chicken Soup With Barley in 1958 had the distinction of being the first modern play to show Harry Kahn – a working class man from the East End – incapacitated because of his health.
So where are the plays about the precariat today?
Written by Leon Fleming and directed by Scott Le Crass, Kicked In The Sh*tter follows ‘Her’ and ‘Him’, siblings who live on a council estate (played by Helen Budge and James Clay). Being the older of the two, ‘Her’ has to keep an eye out for her brother who has some mental health issues. In her youth, she takes these in her stride, still about to drink and date, albeit often with her brother in tow. However, as a single mother who has to look after her children and mother, dealing with her brother is not a responsibility she relishes. Even though he officially he lives on his own, he is very much a part of her life. What really puts the strain on ‘Her’ – the last straw if you will – is the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) wants to stop all benefits payments, despite her being the primary caregiver for the whole family.
Budge as ‘Her’ delivers an impassioned performance. The character draws strength from her emotions and certitude, but comes unstuck when fatigue sets in after years of being ‘strong’ and an uncaring welfare system can’t be reasoned with. Clay as ‘Him’ displays a similar warmth and chemistry with his ‘sister’, but lacks the wherewithal to master his psychological demons. As a different character – an employee of the DWP – Clay is devoid of feeling and emotion. Very effective.
There are certainly aspects of the play that are reminiscent of Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, but anyone who has ever in their lives had to ‘sign on’ for whatever reason knows how dehumanising it can be when there is an inherent belief that no one deserves benefits or ‘is trying to pull a fast one’ until proven otherwise. However, I did like a small scene where someone who works for the DWP makes the distinction between themselves and official policy, and apologises for the DWP’s absolutist criteria.
While not explicitly stated, the accents of the characters hint they are based in or near Birmingham. What with TV programmes like Benefits Street that have demonised the inhabitants of one Birmingham borough for claming welfare, Fleming’s play seeks to subvert the way that they and other claimants around the UK are perceived, showing their humanity.
In recent years there have been a number of former employees from the City of London who found the prosepect of losing all their money too terrible to comprehend and taken their own lives. If the prospect of being destitute can cause a psychotic break in the once-wealthy and educated, how much more would this affect those on the poverty line? How does affect the mental health of the nation?
In its own intimate way, Kicked In The Sh*tter is a State-of-the-Nation play, showing not only the material hardships that millions on or below the poverty line face, but also the acute blindness of the State regarding the circumstances of those who have to care for others and the long-term psychological impact. Still there is a ray of hope. As ‘Him’ is able to step-up and take care of ‘Her’ in her later years, the capacity for kindness where it was once dormant may surprise all. Families have a way of pulling together in spite of past failings. Can one hope that the State in time does the same?
© Michael Davis 2017
Kicked In The Sh*tter runs at Hope Theatre until 8th April 2017