We read that, on average, local council budgets have been cut by 26% since 2010. Northamptonshire is bankrupt in all but name; it intends to close 21 of its 36 libraries. Somerset and Lancashire are cutting services back to the bare minimum required by law. East Sussex has warned of future bankruptcy unless it receives a big cash boost. At the Tory Party Conference in Birmingham last week, Chancellor Philip Hammond told the BBC: 'National debt is still too high. There is light at the end of the [Austerity] tunnel .... but we are still in the tunnel at the moment.' Scant hope of relief there for the anti-Austerity campaigners pointing out that the boring machines have been grinding away since April 2010 and still there's no end to their pulverising.
Menagerie Theatre from Cambridge, in this opening date of a 19-venue tour, has created its commentary on Austerity in the form of a 60 minute play followed by a rôle -playing debate on issues raised by the drama. So we had two strands to our evening, one of which I thought a fair bit more successful than the other.
After a brief introduction by director/scriptwriter Patrick Morris, we launched into a short speech by local councillor Beagley, terminating in a 'no questions' prohibition. The tone was thus set: obdurate authority versus individual, human need, with single-parent Megan Knowles struggling with her housing, children, family relationships, working hours, transport – and all against an insidious background of debt. Her sister's partner Boxer preys upon her, luring her in with his slippery suggestions of jam tomorrow laced with dire warnings of disaster at the door. We see Megan at work as a carer, falling foul of a harassed manager who copes by passing her own stress on down the line to her subordinates. We see the effects of contract outsourcing to for-profit providers, the attempts by politicians to shovel their responsibility up or down the blame chain, and the numbing effect on Megan of the advice and admonitions and predictions of worse to come that cascade upon her head.
All very worthy, but worthiness alone does not make for satisfying theatre. Judged as drama, I felt the script was somewhat basic, falling into something of a limbo between full-blown agit-prop polemic, where you line up your enemy in your sights and then fill him with grapeshot from both barrels of your blunderbuss. Or you go at the thing with a bit of artistic delicacy, couching your message in a way aspiring to a bit of universality through suggestion and metaphor. As it was, even allowing for the short running time, the language of the script was no more than functional, the situations a little lacking in individuality and occasionally cartoonish, and the characters inclined to flatness rather than rounded in profile.
The set was a jumble of bare metal-framed units and screens, bearing the odd slogan or pub indicator or suggestion of a council office. Like the drama itself it rather occupied a no man's land, neither naturalistic nor emblematic, almost more of a distraction than a help; and the scene changes where the units were constantly being arranged and re-arranged seemed to take quite a long time, and then to little effect.
Three actors took five rôles between them. Neal Craig differentiated slickly his councillor/boyfriend/debt shark for Paradise Loans ('I'm just the collector!'), and I liked his varied body language. Hayley Wareham's Megan in baggy trousers and trainers had to contend with an underwritten rôle, and she struggled to make of her character much more than a stereotype, especially in her long monologue near the end. Caroline Rippin, though, did wonders with her part; a tough manager but just hinting at insecurities below the shell; a sister in peach high heels with plenty of sympathy but not purblind. Excellent energy, variation in voice and stage presence.
But what a transformation after the interval! Patrick Morris expertly led the extended debate, guiding us firmly but democratically as audience and actors explored the implications of Austerity through examining scenes of the play and extending them through audience input.
From a series of thoughtful interventions from a dozen members, Emma Bliss made a probing contribution, Suzanne Bell introduced humour to her denunciation of zero-hours contracts, Jo Taylor-Woods, present with a group of friends from Woodcraft Folk https://woodcraft.org.uk/ was a fluent poser of pertinent questioning of the Councillor, and Rowan Padmore, a staff member of The Old Fire Station, gave a sympathetic demonstration of one-to-one support to a woman in need. Caroline Rippin again impressed, this time with her ability cleverly to stay in character without a script.
A bit of a curate's egg, then, but Austerity is such a vital and seemingly endless feature of our society, one that challenges the very basis of our Welfare System, that this piece of Forum Theatre makes for required participation by people ready to watch, think and then speak up..