Unknown: A Play About Homelessness, Old Joint Stock Theatre – Review

There are many reasons why people end up living on the streets, but at the end of the day, it all boils down to one thing: at one crucial point in their life, there was no one they could turn to for help. Originally conceived as an audio drama, Dougie Blaxland’s Unknown has been adapted into a fully-fledged play that’s touring the UK. At the centre of the story lies Ricky Webster (Scott Bayliss), as we trace the plethora of tragic events from childhood to manhood.

Playing respectively Ricky’s mother and her partner Derek, as well as an assortment of other characters, Sabrina Laurison and Dan Gaisford display versatility in depicting those formerly ‘close’ to Ricky, as well people within ‘the system’ who failed to see the hopelessness of his circumstances… While Blaxland’s writing is peppered with insights from people who have recently experienced homelessness, Ricky was a real person and as such, the bones of the play reflect the milestones of his life.

Experiencing domestic violence from a very early age, Ricky’s parents seclude him from school, keeping his injuries off the radar of social services. Just as detrimental to Ricky’s long-term well-being as the physical injuries he receives, is his illiteracy. Later in life, when avenues of help (which are printed on leaflets) are given to him, shame at never having learned to read stops him going through these channels. Admitting his illiteracy is never given a serious consideration. To quote the famous poem, ‘But for the want of a nail…’

Had Ricky only had his parents, his life could have been even worse (and the play much shorter). However, his mother had an older daughter from a previous relationship and living with her would provide Ricky a second chance at life. At least on paper…

L-R: Scott Bayliss, Sabrina Laurison, Dan Gaisford / All photos @LHounsomephotos

One of the things that ‘naysayers’ sometimes bring up when seeing someone living on the streets, is: “You don’t know where the money’s going to.” In other words: “It’s probably going on booze and drugs, not food or shelter.” Unknown doesn’t shy away from the question. In fact, it shows that in enduring a perpetual brutal life, such activities become a ‘coping mechanism’ to endure the cold, pain and fragile mental health. In the case of Ricky, because of his illiteracy and fear of ridicule, he absconds from classes, putting distance between himself and the negative behaviour he used to receive on his rare visits to school. But the breaking point for Ricky’s sister is he’s out most evenings, partaking in underage drinking and drugs. And with children of her own to look out for, she ‘has’ to make a choice between their welfare and his… This doesn’t, of course, assuage her feelings of guilt or her ‘need’ to know Ricky’s OK. But if/when he’s found, would she let him move back as before…?

This incident highlights that we all like to think we’d ‘do the right thing’ and help family/the homeless when they’re in a fix. But if they’re continuing with ‘habits they’ve picked up on the streets’ and their underlying traumas are never addressed, giving leaflets or any other ‘surface level’ help are as useful as putting a tea towel on a broken arm (which is what happened to Ricky as an infant).

Another ‘thorny issue’ that the play addresses is ‘respecting the privacy of the homeless who don’t want to be found’. One could argue that if this didn’t exist, family members could be traced more easily. The counterargument is domestic abuse or problems at home are the reasons some decide to live ‘off the grid’ in the first place. In the case of Ricky, moving from his home town of Chippenham to affluent Bath makes more sense, because more visitors mean (potentially) more opportunities in general. Moving elsewhere to a larger town also means nobody from your past will see you. You may not have money, a roof over your head or even self-respect in general, but the one thing you can save yourself from is the indignity of people you once knew see you at your lowest point.

For Ricky and most homeless people in general, we see that the biggest obstacle isn’t just ‘surviving’, it’s the ‘box ticking’ culture of social services. Because of arbitrary ‘rules’, Ricky and ‘those in the same boat’ have a ‘Schrodinger’s’ status – eligible for help (and not) at the same. Small wonder so many people living on the streets die because of red tape.

As you might expect, Unknown doesn’t make for easy viewing, and seeing how much the lives of the homeless are dictated by circumstances beyond their control, it leaves the audience at times frustrated and angry that suffering like this still exists in today’s Britain.

While the play doesn’t give false hope or provide trite answers, the play serves as a reminder that the homeless aren’t a statistic, but people who once upon a time mattered to others. They are not truly ‘unknown’ – even before they were living on the streets, the homeless had underlying problems that weren’t addressed by the powers-that-be and ultimately, they were forgotten during their greatest hour of need. Knowing all of this, what are you going to do today..?

© Michael Davis 2022

Unknown was created with support from the The Big Issue and Arts Council, and produced by RoughHouse Theatre. It ran at the Old Joint Stock Theatre on 13-14 October and will continue its UK tour at:

Oct 17: Pub and Gown Theatre, Cambridge

Oct 18-22: Greenwich Theatre

Oct 25-26: Vesta Tilley Studio Swan Theatre, Worcester

Oct 27-28: Salford Arts, Greater Manchester

Oct 29: Angles Theatre, Wisbech

Nov 1: The Egg, Theatre Royal Bath

Nov 2-3: Everyman Theatre Studio, Cheltenham

Nov 4:  The Core at Corby Cube

Nov 5: The Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford


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