Wish List

Katherine Soper

Royal Court and Royal Exchange

Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

From 10 January 2017 to 11 February 2017

Review by Philip Fisher

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The Royal Court’s 2017 programme starts with an astonishingly assured debut play from Katherine Soper, first seen at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.

Wish List would be the perfect companion piece to Alexander Zeldin's Love at the National. Like that play, it puts society's forgotten underclass under the microscope for 100 often gruelling minutes by the end of which most viewers should be screaming about the need to reform the welfare system in this country.

As the set, designed by Ana Inés Jabares Pita, with a depressing kitchen and bathroom at one end and equally unpleasant conveyor belt at the other, suggests, for those at the bottom of the pile, life is one long grind offering no hope of escape.

Tamsin Carmody may seem a little inarticulate but it soon becomes apparent that Erin Doherty's character is bright. She is also one of those saintly carers that today's affluent society does its best to ignore. Her life has been blighted by the need to support Joseph Quinn as younger brother Dean, a teenager with an obsessive disorder that renders him functionally useless, forced by his own mind to perform meaningless "rituals" in a never-ending cycle.

The result is that, despite a love of science and clear intellectual ability, Tamsin failed her GCSEs and is obliged to act as his carer.

Her only escape is at her new job packing boxes for an unnamed company that many will associate with the world’s largest retailer. To any viewer, this would be the job from Hell. Tamsin's kind, witty colleague Luke can put up with it because he knows that after a 12-week stint, he will go to college and leave the tedium of the "fulfilment centre" behind forever.

In the meantime, he offers much-needed moral and practical support. This is a blessing since Alexander Mikic playing The Lead i.e. the supervisor is a slave driver in a zero-hours industry that is really not too far from modern slavery. Indeed, what this play says about globalisation and its negative impact on the world at large is a major part of its value.

While Shaquille Ali-Yebuah's 16-year-old Luke offers affection and even enough kindness to thaw Dean briefly, Tamsin desperately needs something that only social services can offer, i.e. money. The critical moment for her comes when the opportunity to return to college must be balanced against the need to support her unconventional household.

However, as so many seem to be finding in these harsh times, officialdom is designed to deny benefits whenever possible so that even Dean, mentally crippled if physically fit, is regarded as able to work, although he spends his days re-gelling his hair and cannot persuade himself to go outdoors.

Matthew Xia has chosen and drilled a young cast, led by Erin Doherty who gives the kind of performance which suggests that she is a star in the making, every one of whom delivers in a play that is as grim as it is necessary.