Edinburgh Fringe 2019
Last seen at the Fringe with Cathy in 2017, Cardboard Citizens return with a collection of homeless histories. the lives and deaths of homeless people. A Windrush generation boxer, a Polish migrant marked with a tattoo and a man with a bottle of gin and a television in his shopping trolley. And asks, are we mere bystanders?
The failings of authority and society to support homeless people is apparent in any theatre that aims to bring their experiences in front a wider audience. However, it can be implicit and leave us with a rather general sort of ‘it really shouldn’t be like this’ feeling. Where Bystanders breaks out of the mould is in shining a light on those who stood by in the lives of the true stories they present; the police officers, the supermarket security guard, the immigration official. There is a focus on them and shining a light on their behaviour and choices as they face questions and inquiries makes uncomfortable watching.
The show uses verbatim material, but also draws on other sources as well. Sometimes because those concerned couldn’t or didn’t want to talk to Cardboard Citizens or Cardboard Citizens didn’t want to talk to them. They describe this as ‘intelligent theatre with verbatim bits’. As the stories begin they pass round the list of
more than 165 homeless people who died in London in the past year, names that were read at the Annual Service of Commemoration at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square in November last year.
The threads running through the piece are stories of specific real people, in and around Salisbury – that one medium sized cathedral city can generate four such clear and different narratives brings home that every other town the length and breadth of the country could probably do the same. It somehow felt even more immediate.
The stage is bordered by a stack of archive boxes on each side which serve to point up the immense amount of beaurocracy surrounding the homeless as well as a home for props. The simple items of furniture – tables, a lectern, chairs, are whisked about to create offices, courts, inquiries, hospitals…
The ensemble cast of Jake Goode, Libby Liburd, Mark Lockyer and Andre Skeete all provide superb performances as they flick between the different story threads at a rattling pace delivering a mix of verbatim and imagined scenes. There is Vernon Vanriel (who we also see speaking on video towards the end), a former boxer who found himself stranded in Jamaica for 13yrs; Tomek, a Polish man living on the streets of Benidorm allegedly paid 100 Euros by a British stag party to have the groom’s address tattooed on his forehead; Charlie Rowley who found the discarded perfume bottle containing Novichok; Eugeniusz Niedziolko who died in a public toilet after being put there by police officers to sober up and the man doused with paint as he begged for money outside a supermarket.
It is a challenging piece and forces us to wonder. We would all like to think we would have done it differently, but the real question this show asks is, ‘would you? Would you really have been the perfect nurse, paramedic, police officer… or just a bystander?’