Blame

Beatrix Campbell and Judith Jones
York Theatre Royal and Sphinx Theatre Company
Arcola Theatre
(2007)

After opening at York and playing Northern Stage in Newcastle, Campbell and Jones' new play, set in Hackney and with numerous local references, now comes to its own Dalston location. It takes place in a local council flat where Mandy (Lindsey Coulson) has lived since she was born. Her mother was one of the first residents, there for the official opening by Queen Mary (our present Queen's grandmother). Today, what was once something for the LCC to be proud of, is now in need of serious refurbishment. Patrick Connellan's set leaves us in no doubt of that, the surface of its concrete floor is disintegrating, its white canvas ceiling is ripped open. We are only told that the front door has been smashed in, but there is no need to see it. People walk in and out quite freely and only a little girl and her ex-prisoner uncle, the two who seem to most acknowledge society's rules, walk round the invisible walls to make their entrances.

This is a picture of a contemporary underclass, but they live in a very different life from the between-the-wars industrial workers and unemployed whose lives the LCC set about to change. The white painted set seems fresh and light, there is a new-looking suite of white faux-leather furniture, television, hi-fi, the little girl has a neat school uniform, there are take-away pizzas and everyone has mobile phones, oblivious to how much those calls may be costing. These do not look like starving people, even though they've been waiting weeks for a new door to arrive from a manufacturer (out-sourced in Poland!). Their deprivation is more lack of opportunity, the eradication of purpose of hope and aspiration.

At first a large part of the audience will probably be as powerless to understand what is going on as are its characters are to control their lives. The actors' performances are intensely naturalistic, the dialogue a mixture of mumbled West Indian and screamed local accents that are largely incomprehensible, especially in this low-ceiling theatre's acoustic. Scenes are extremely short and bitty, interrupted by a lot of pushing around of furniture to little purpose. If that is all the help we get why should we bother? That is, I guess, their purpose: to produce in us something akin to the characters' exasperation.

For me, Deborah Bruce's direction pushes this a little too far. I may have a working-class background but it's not Dalston and I felt in desperate need of subtitles. I knew I was missing too much information. Even at the end of the play I was still trying to work out the relationships between this group of people and had probably missed key plot points, though I got the gist of what was happening. It all seemed to be in the same flat, the furniture moves time rather than location changes. We kept being told 'It's my birthday' - were there years passing? I took some time to ditch the belief that this was about a black mother with two white daughters and a black son. It turns out (I think) that the black lady (Sandra Yaw) is a neighbour and one of the girls is Mandy, a mother with two daughters, and the black guy the boyfriend of the pregnant elder daughter.

As the ear becomes more attuned to the accents and the pace gets less hectic it is revealed that father of Mandy's junior school-age daughter still has some malignant hold over her, threatening violence and demanding her help in what? - was it housing East-European prostitutes? Elder daughter Chantelle (Katie Wimpenny) seems to have a job and a happy relationship with Dwayne (Nicholas Beveney) and they are both pleased about the baby: it's a pity that he has had to resort to earning his living as a dealer and that he sometimes uses schoolgirl Laikeisha to make his deliveries. (Hints of yet another story: where does a working-class family find a name like that?) Grandma, who doesn't appear, seems to be living somewhere else nearby. Older brother, uncle Ray, who is devoted to little Laikeisha, is living in a hostel. He's been in prison (for GBH? though for at one point I thought it was child molestation) and prison seems to have given him some education and training in life skills and dealing with bureaucracy. Andrew Paul doubles both thug Denny and Uncle Ray. He doesn't just don a woolly hat but creates two totally convincing characters, outstanding among this fine cast.

There really isn't much plot until the second half. Assured little Laikeisha (a calmly centred performance from Callie Ward), fed up with a mother who keeps putting off filling in forms for school, is used to doing things on her own. Now she disappears after visiting Ray when her mother is high and celebrating her birthday on her own, Swayne and Chantelle wrapped up in each other. She is dead - and they all begin to blame each other. In some way they are all guilty but it is not their guilt that this play is really about. What is it that has made these people's lives so lacking in real purpose, why don't they care about anything outside the immediate moment. How have we come from the London County Council who wanted to change lives when they built this block of council flats to the new-Labour values of today? Consumer choice is not going to solve their problems.

Without idealism and an egalitarian sense of purpose it's not surprising that you get apathy and irresponsibility. Perhaps Uncle Ray among these characters may get to a polling booth, I doubt the others do. You could blame them for that too but I don't think that is what these playwrights are on about. As a social worker and a journalist they know the world they write about. They are not so much telling us a story as giving a glimpse of the emptiness. Who is to blame for that? Ourselves, if we don't stop trying to apportion blame, and instead set about changing the ethos and conditions that are destroying the roots of our society. Jones and Campbell don't attempt to offer solutions but in these lives they do illustrate a problem at the core of contemporary life.

Continues at the Arcola Theatre until 21st April

Howard Loxton