…In the company of strangers
In the quiet of the railway station
Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go
Looking for the places
Only they would know…
The Boxer – Simon & Garunkel
Most people would agree that homelessness is a deplorable situation and that it shouldn’t happen in this day and age. But in Austerity Britain, poverty and homelessness is as prevalent as ever and in every major city, there are still properties that lie unused. So who will speak out for those in this predicament..? Originally performed earlier this year, Kings returns to the stage – this time at New Diorama Theatre, which is near many of the places referenced and adds a greater poignancy to the events of the play.
Written and directed by Oli Forsyth, Kings takes place under hidden railway arches in SE1. Residing within a makeshift camp are Bess (Libby Liburd), Ebi (Andy McLeod) and Hannah (Emma James). In many ways they are a ‘family’, with Bess and Ebi very much as ‘Mom and Dad’, and Hannah as their responsibility who they have to keep an eye out for since she often doesn’t act in her own best interests. Days are spent with two of the group drumming up money for food and provisions, while the third person stays behind to look after their ‘camp’. After one disappointing day for the group, a stranger by the name of Caz (Madeleine MacMahon) turns up unannounced. For better or for worse, her arrival ushers in changes…
Having deftly established the ‘family’ dynamics in the early scenes, the tension arising from Caz’s arrival is palpable. While Hannah and Ebi are less suspicious of Caz, Bess has some very real reasons to wary of her. Of a similar age to Hannah, but without the drug habit to make her less lucid, Caz’s youth, intelligence and education are ‘threat’ to Bess’ bullish authority. But something else about Caz troubles Bess. Caz has supposedly all the advantages Bess doesn’t possess. So why is Caz living on the streets?
Why any of the characters are on the street is a question Kings explores. All have different circumstances, but what unifies them are certain circumstances beyond their control, plus a pivotal bad decision that has unforeseen, lasting repercussions.
Kings doesn’t paint anyone as ‘saints’, yet by the same time token they’re not demonised either. The characters have their respective ‘vices’, which from time to time get the worst of them. Yet after spending years on the streets, it is understandable why they would be tempted. The play is also very candid about the double-edged nature of living in a hostel, with some people prone to stealing or aggression. With this being the case, is it any better or different to being on the streets?
The one thing that Kings isn’t is sentimental, and the play puts into context the characters’ perspective and where they fit in the scheme of things. Sympathy for endangered species and habitats is in short shrift when the homeless feel the general public cares more about matters thousands of miles from home, than the destitute on their doorstep.
On the streets, the number one priority is staying alive. That being the case, ‘altruism’ in the play is in short supply and when it comes to finding the ‘right spot’ to beg, having people such as buskers nearby whose mere presence splits the potential ‘earnings’ is not looked upon kindly. Bess is the first to admit that if for all their ‘familial loyalty’, if it was a choice between sticking together and the opportunity to live in her own place by herself, she would “roll over” the others. Of course, the instinct for ‘self-preservation’ and ‘altruism’ are sometimes blurred, and Kings keeps the audience guessing on this front, especially regards to Bess and Caz.
Group dynamics asides, Caz’s greatest impact is changing their expctations of life, which is where the play asks the most pertinent questions regarding ‘squatting’ and whether the end justifies the means. Even by applying to be put on housing lists, there are no guarantees that permanent, safe accomodation can be secured – especially if past ‘misdemeanours’ are used as reasons for refusal. If society won’t help, what choice do the homeless have but to help themselves any way they can..?
As plays goes, it’s rare to find characters so roundly developed and I think it’s fair so say that if the audience didn’t feel they knew the characters so well, the developments in the last act and the way it challenges the audience, wouldn’t have so much impact.
© Michael Davis 2017
Kings runs at New Diorama Theatre until 21st October.