Edinburgh Fringe 2015
Facing skyrocketing rent and forced relocation, 29 young mothers united to confront Newham Council’s gentrification of their hometown. Two years on, E15, a verbatim piece, examines the Focus E15 movement, Britain’s housing crisis and how one group of women refused to be marginalised. Adapted from real-life testimonies of activists, witnesses and councillors, E15 addresses the themes of community, strength and solidarity in the face of adversity.
FYSA Theatre is a Yorkshire based verbatim theatre company aiming to twin theatre and activism. E15 is the postcode for Newham in East London, the site of the Focus E15 project – opened in 1996 and aiming to support young vulnerable people. However, in a city with 24,000 households in emergency accommodation projects such as these are coming under pressure from increased demand, reduced funding and developers with an eye on any bit of land they can get hold of in the increasingly gentrified environs of Stratford East.
The start of this story lies with a group of young women originally housed in the mother and baby unit at Focus E15 hostel who were served with eviction notices and, if they were to be rehoused, could have found themselves in cities hundreds of miles from their origins in Newham. They were a group of very young and politically inexperienced mothers who started a movement that caught the eye of the national media and ultimately succeeded in a partial victory.
As we enter the venue has the feeling of a protest meeting with the cast chanting slogans and every bit of the ubiquitous fringe venue black drapes covered in handmade protest banners giving a real sense of being not in Edinburgh, but East London. A very hot East London!
The script is based on the testimonies of the women at the heart of the protest. The starting point is a little of their stories in arriving at Focus E15 leading up to the eviction notices and the fight they subsequently took on. What is notable is how isolated these young women were until they joined forces to fight and the extent to which the huge difficulties they faced also served to empower them. By the end one is talking of wanting to train as a lawyer.
Verbatim can be a challenging form of theatre with a tendency to assume that using the testifies of the participants automatically constitutes good drama. The team behind E15 have worked hard to create a strong story that carries the action along – and, judging by my additional research, stays faithful to real events. The one area that is weaker is where the ‘other’ side speaks – a politician, a councillor, a housing advisor, which is too static and poorly lit. It feels a little bolted on in recognition of the need to present all sides. This is a clearly political issue play and the writers should perhaps not shy away from that. Some additional thought about movement, lighting and juxtaposition of the speakers in that section would maintain the pace and provide a clearer story.
There are a lot of delightful details of the sort that tell an entire story in a phrase or sentence – wondering whether council staff get training in eyebrow raising, for example. Particularly poignant was the fact that they hand wrote the first batch of flyers because they had neither the money nor the resources to print them.
The young actors are all talented and flexible. moving between the various characters with ease and creating a convincing picture of a busy group of activists. The audience were completly absorbed despite the sauna like conditions of the venue.
There isn’t a neat or happy ending. For some of the group things are a little easier, for others the looming end of a short term lease means that the anxiety about the future continues. However, the ending manages to bring that story to a conclusion of sorts whilst recognising the continued uncertainty of housing for many others.
This is a striking piece of theatre from a group who are passionate about the work they create and I suspect we will see more from them.