FringeReview UK 2017
Winner of the 2015 Bruntwood Prize, premiered at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Katherine Soper’s debut Wish List transfers to the Royal Court. The original cast’s directed by Matthew Xia, designed by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita and lit by Ciaran Cunningham. It fits neatly into the Court’s Theatre Upstairs space in traverse. Till February 11th.
Katherine Soper’s debut play, winner of the 2015 Bruntwood Prize, premiered at Manchester’s Royal Exchange last September. In another of these fruitful transfers to the Royal Court, the original cast directed by Matthew Xia, designed by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita and lit by Ciaran Cunningham, fits neatly into the Court’s Theatre Upstairs space in traverse. Jabares-Pita creates two opposing sets of home (shower cubicle and sink) and moveable conveyer belts with a chute down which are thrown objects for boxing.
The title neatly refers to work – fulfilling others’ dreams – and dreams of those who work to package them. Tamsin Carmody, nineteen, works zero-hour contracts for a packaging ‘fulfilment’ depot. Sole provider, she’s also fighting her younger brother Dean’s demons partly for him, sometimes almost against: his OCD’s so overwhelming we see him gel his hair every witchy way in a shower cubicle whilst failing to attend JSA medical assessments, or when he does, sabotage himself. Being orphaned has traumatised them differently.
Tamsin’s appealing the DWP decision to render Dean for work in a Benefits culture now penalising the dying. She unpicks Dean’s wrong answers whilst trying not to fall behind on her new job quotient.
Soper, who worked in a similar environment on vacation, depicts these and other scenarios from the painful stamp of experience. It’s difficult to conceive of such precise deprivations being portrayed other than realistically; this is how Soper selects and scopes her material: anything else would soften the impact.
Erin Doherty’s Tamsin is breathtaking, quite literally as she speaks in a kind of flutter-tongue nervousness, almost swallowing her words and veering to a stammer. Tamsin sometimes literally can’t aspirate. Doherty gives a quite brilliant portrayal of someone rendered nearly voiceless who on occasion has to find a desperate authority and at other moments, aspire.
Joseph Quinn’s wondrously detailed Dean, ritualising every hand signal, repeating each gesture, is of course no help at all: their interaction is tender, compassionate, exasperated: Tamsin’s quiet despair responds to another bout of defensiveness, or Dean’s repeatedly microwaving tea for three seconds then throwing it away, as with food.
Tamsin’s work provides the only contrast, and what an environment. There, Alexandar Mikic’s The Lead exhorts her to higher productivity; robotic application of minus-points mimics Dean’s disqualification, a society literally de-grading the young because politically and personally expedient. But Mikic’s Lead is no robot: gradually his exemptions and job-risking sleights offer a grim glimmer, and Mikic strengthens this like a light under a door.
They cut across what co-worker Luke Mburu offers though. Played with an adroit sparkiness by Shaquille Ali-Yebuah, Luke‘s an ex-school contemporary of Dean. Sixteen too, he’s more worldly than either sibling and like The Lead but from the start takes risks to help Tamsin. But he’s already leaving for college, and discovering her shy expository talents, her account of a star’s life to white dwarf, he encourages her to college too.
That’s not all. Returning with her, befriending Dean, he’s treated to Tamsin’s karaoke in Bat Out of Hell II. Her introducing him to this (as the title suggests) marks a shivering leap to joy, desire and release: it’s an achingly exposed moment, funny and funky, and Doherty’s heartbreaking here. But can Tamsin really break free, especially since the well-meaning Lead tries to make her life less precarious?
The denouement and its aftermath bears its own gentle hopelessness. Xia and the company reverse the order of the two very last moments of the play as printed, to tantalising effect. Rarely have the terrible antimonies of work and benefits system been so precisely notated, and never the combined effect calibrated to crush out young lives so mapped. It’s an essential play that charts the betrayal of a generation.