Stratford Play House, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 6th April 2019
First off, it’s very pleasing to see new work being created and produced in a town that thrives on centuries-old drama. This brand-new piece by local playwright Jackie Lines depicts what life is like for an increasing number of vulnerable people who, through no choice of their own, wind up on the streets. Passers-by give examples of the abuse faced by homeless people and illustrate the negative attitudes and common misconceptions about them. It’s an effective start.
The play tells of the efforts of a group of volunteers in a centre as they strive, with limited resources, to make life better for the homeless. We meet a range of characters from the streets, such as ex-army, PTSD sufferer Neil (a powerful Graham Tyrer) who declaims poetry and rants through mental illness, like a latter-day Vladimir or Estragon. There’s Mick, a former plumber who lost everything after a life-changing injury that led to an addiction to opiates, played by Mark Spriggs with intensity, strength and vulnerability. The inclusion of a couple of original poems by Spriggs enriches the show.
Largely, the story concerns the fate of young couple Tom (Tom Purchase-Rathbone) and Susan (Emma Beasley) who have found each other on the streets, having each come from horrendous childhood backgrounds. At first, they are cautious about accepting help from the centre, but gradually, they blossom and thrive, although there are some setbacks along the way. Mick, who, despite the intercession of bleeding heart Sandra (Rachel Alcock) declines help, does not end so happily: there is some kind of moral message here. If you accept help, you’ll be fine; if you don’t, you won’t.
Among an effective cast, Zoe Rashwan’s forthright Carol stands out and the drama is leavened by comic relief from Gill Hines as doddering volunteer Edna. Chris Musson (appearing as guitarist Barry) brings original music, along with Chris Callaghan’s Eddie, as volunteers running song-writing sessions to give the homeless a voice.
As the volunteers, we have Stacey Warner as Anna, Barry Purchase-Rathbone as Greg, and Karen Welsh as Diane – whose elegant exterior masks a tale of injustice and loss that put her on the streets for a time. The play shows that there are ways out of homelessness, and not all of them are tragic!
In terms of drama, I would like to see more direct conflict, perhaps involving the kind of authority figures whose policies exacerbate the problem. Certainly, these people need to be in the audience of a show like this. Director Greg Cole handles the slice-of-life tone, with scenes coming over as credible and authentic, although there are some staging issues. In-the-round is more intimate, yes, and democratic, which is fitting, but cast members need to ‘share their backs’ so everyone gets a fair look at them!
By and large, the production is an awareness-raising, thought-provoking, conscience-pricking success, depicting the precariousness of life in society today and emphasising the humanity we all share with the homeless.