Cardboard Citizens' new play, Benefit, is a wonderful example of interactive political theatre-making, showcasing the very best of company and audience alike.
The play shows three loosely connected stories – that of a young woman whose benefits were sanctioned because her appointments were double booked, a man whose work situation and relationship are disintegrating around him, and a man with severe mental health issues who has wrongly passed his fit for work assessment. For the first half, we are presented with these stories as a conventional play – a moving, and heartbreaking conventional play, highlighting how the most vulnerable in our country are repeatedly set up to fail.
The second half is run as forum theatre, a style that Cardboard Citizens have been using for twenty years. The idea of forum theatre is that the actors replay the piece, but we as an audience have the chance to stop and alter the action – to step into the ATOS interview, to talk back at the doctors appointment. This means we have the chance to change the characters’ fates, to find real-feeling solutions to problems that seemed insurmountable at first.
The acting from the cast (most of whom have experienced homelessness) was brilliant, with a particularly difficult and excellent performance from Mark Lockyer. Terry O’Leary, who facilitated the forum section of the show, was engaging and friendly, creating a real sense of community and purpose within the audience – we truly cared what happened to our characters, and about each other’s suggestions. Rarely have I been to a show that has fostered such a sense of belonging, sparked so much anger, and provided such a clear call to action. If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to write a letter to my MP…