The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 8th June, 2016
The stage in the main house becomes its own auditorium for this intimate production. Written and directed by Alexander Zeldin, through devising with the company, this is a highly naturalistic piece, to the extent that the actors don’t project their voices. You really have to listen – with Josh Anio Grigg’s sound design providing a ceaseless rumble of offstage machinery, and the harsh tube lighting (Marc Williams), it makes for an atmosphere where concentration is demanded, as well as getting across the sense of place.
And what a place it is. We are in a back room at a sausage factory. Three women are recruited as cleaning staff, joining Phil, the permanent employee. The women are on zero hours contracts, and each of them is desperate in her own way. Aggressive Scouser Becky (Victoria Moseley) needs to travel to see her daughter; quiet Susan (Kristin Hutchinson) is clearly struggling – the loss of a pound coin in a vending machine is devastating – and she needs somewhere to sleep; upbeat Grace (Janet Etuk) is working despite crippling rheumatoid arthritis, because her benefits have been stopped – she is ‘fit for work’ apparently.
You’d think it would be relentlessly bleak. Instead it’s darkly funny and beautifully observed. Humanity springs eternal: we learn that Phil (James Doherty) enjoys cooking and made his own costume for the staff fancy dress party. The characters bond and clash; they unite against their common enemy, Ian (Luke Clarke) a prick of a supervisor, who claims to be ‘spiritual’ but is really full of bollocks. A scene in which he takes Susan through a bullshit staff evaluation is hilarious and horrifying in equal measure.
Missing a rubber glove and a wheel from her mop bucket, Susan becomes more desperate, Grace deteriorates, Becky lashes out and reaches out in animalistic need. Gentle Phil tries to record a birthday message for his estranged daughter… Every moment, either funny or sobering, is compelling to watch.
Ian piles on the pressure, bullying them into extra shifts, dismissing their concerns about late payment… It’s an eye-opening portrayal of the lot of the low-paid and exploited, an almost Dickensian exposure.
The excellent cast play with such credibility it is as though we are eavesdropping on their shifts. There is an authenticity to the piece that makes it hard-hitting; you almost forget that scenes are shaped and orchestrated to have maximum impact. The illusion of surface reality is so strong you disregard the unseen hands that have put the show together.
We empathise with and have respect for the characters as the play reminds us that they are people too. Relevant, powerful, amusing and emotive, Beyond Caring is a piece to be experienced and remembered in the debate over the rights of employees, and agency workers in particular, who are treated no better than the meat processed by the machinery they have to clean.