‘Wish List’, Zero Hour Contract Play

We’ve just watched Katherine Soper’s debut play at the Royal Court (it premiered in Manchester and won the Bruntwood Prize). Absolutely fabulous!

It adds to the intimacy of the experience that the Jerwood Upstairs seats just 85 people and the acting takes place between two sets of rows, with the remaining two ends of the room being set up as the work place and the home of Tamsin (Erin Doherty). She is a 19-year old woman, who works full-time in a soul-destroying zero-hour contract job as a packer in a warehouse, packing boxes with goods from customers’ twist-of-the-moment wish lists, while caring for her 17-year old mentally unwell, housebound brother Dean (Jonathan Quinn) since the death of their mother.

He can already be seen while the audience gets seated, engaging in his obsessive compulsive rituals of putting gel into his hair behind the transparent walls of the bathroom, tapping rhythmically on objects, and generally acting thoroughly weird.

There is not much of a plot, but on the surface the play is about the daily grind, laughs and horror of Tamsin’s life. Social services are about to re-classify Dean as ‘fit-to-work’ and cancel the benefits. Tamsin and Dean don’t know how to make ends meet.

At work, Tamsin makes friends with her 16-year old co-worker and her brother’s former schoolmate Luke, hilariously played by Shaquille Ali-Yebuah with boyish charm, at most times light-hearted and joking about, but not without depth and capacity for contemplation. Their supervisor, flawlessly acted by Aleksandar Mikic, who initially comes across as intimidating enforcer of company policy, gradually turns out to see himself as a cogwheel in an anonymous, relentless and dehumanised machine where no one means evil but no one understands the other side with everyone just following the targets they are given by the ones precisely one level above them. He explains to Tamsin that he has a young daughter and that he would lose his job if he wouldn’t do what’s expected from him.

The madness at work, where one’s packing performance is constantly being measured against one’s average packing performance and unrealistic targets and where the compulsory completion of questionnaires (‘Do you have any psychological barriers to succeed?’ etc.) risk destroying the last bit of soul left in the place, are eloquently mirrored against the other side of the room where Dean struggles with his OCD urges. Paul Taylor, in his review for The Independent, is spot-on when he writes “the powerful traverse-stage design by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita gradually blurs the stark-seeming divide between the flat at one end and, at the other, the warehouse with its Orwellian slogan ‘Work. Enjoy, Improve’ and its chute, down which, in one ominous sequence, a slew of bottles of hair gel tumble for packing.”

Young director Matthew Xia’s (who is also successful as DJ, composer, broadcaster and journalist) production manages to stage state-of-the-art political theatre about such dark topics without getting bitter or angry, shaming and naming. It is instead a thoughtful, tender, subtle, fragile and quietly beautiful performance that shows how in today’s world everything is disconnected and lacks compassion and humanity. No one thinks about how what they do or buy has an effect.

Especially thanks to Ali-Yebuah’s character’s seemingly unstoppable optimism and relentless determination to see the funny side in every dark hole, there are plenty of loud (and more often quiet) laughs throughout the play and Soper even managed to squeeze in a bit of teen romance.

Clare Brennan’s 2 out of 5 review of Xia’s Manchester production for the Guardian seems overly harsh when she says that it “freights this slight but potentially interesting piece of work with a lumbering, pace-killing, industrial-style set and unnecessarily melodramatic effects […]. Promising performances by the young cast […] would give depth to a piece that, at present, feels more like an illustration to than an exploration of its ideas.” Or when she writes that “exchanges between the characters come across mostly as pretexts to transmit information to the audience: about the difficulties of dealing with social services, the trials of low-skilled labour and the restricted choices of people on low incomes.” We did not at all get that impression when watching Xia’s production at the Royal Court tonight.

Rupert Murdoch’s The Times (through the infamous Ann ‘Henchman’ Treneman), which also only gives the play 2 out of 5, waffles about “this polemic [aiming] to educate on zero-hours contracts and the plight of the poor, but [being] too relentlessly dreary”. As anything from a Murdoch paper, it can be dismissed without further comment.

Henry Hitchings, in the Evening Standard, does not appear to fully grasp what I would perceive as the main angle of this play when he writes that it is “a quietly sympathetic vision of a difficult brother-sister relationship, it’s also […] about the insecurity of the modern workplace” and about the “cult of productivity and society’s obsession with […] quantifiable achievements”. However, he is not completely off when he says that “the ideas feel underdeveloped, and […] the soulless routines of work are presented in a style that’s neither grimly realistic nor resourcefully bizarre.” But c’mon, Shakespeare wasn’t always realistic or resourcefully bizarre, it’s still great theatre and works for us, even though we can see how doing the one or the other could have added to it. We’d give it 4 out of 5; 5 out of 5 if the fact that it is a debut play and young actors is taken into account.

We usually try to see the plays we review during the preview sessions, but failed to get seats this time around. So it is with great regret that we note that the play’s last show at the Royal Court will already be in a few days’ time.

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