Or Am I Alone?

Lizzie Nunnery
Cardboard Citizens
Toynbee Hall and touring

Ot Am I Alone? production photo

This programme of three short plays is this year's Hostel Tour play, a show which tours to homeless hostels, day centres and other venues where Cardboard Citizens can reach the target audience which the company seeks to help in understanding and tackling their problems.

Each play centres on a character who has been or becomes homeless and whose experience some members of the audience may share. Indeed they are based on real life experiences of people that Cardboard Citizens have worked with.

The first of them presents Suzanne, a young woman who, unable to cope after her mother has been killed in a road accident, becomes an absentee from college and then runs away to London where she gets caught up in prostitution and falls in with addicts.

This is followed by the story of Lucy, a woman who, with help, has got off the booze and is trying to pay something back by doing voluntary social work in which her own experiences will aid her, but the strains of the work when she gets emotionally close to one of her clients pushes he back into alcoholism.

The third play is about family man Daniel whose concentration on his business means he doesn't give enough time to his family, especially his young daughter, a situation that gets worse as his business begins to go bottom up leaving him deserted by his family and on the street homeless..

All three playlets are well performed by a cast who double all the necessary roles with Jennifer Lewin as Suzanne, Johanna Alitt as Lucy, Jonathan Whitty (bravely playing with a painfully damaged arm in a sling when I saw him) as Daniel, together with David Hamilton and Terry O'Leary. Under the direction of Tony McBride and Adrian Jackson they are simply mounted by Ian Teague in a set that uses a couple of plastic-sheeted screens and decorator's ladders and paint cans to allow speedy transitions of location and easy transportability for touring to non-theatre venues.

These stories are very effective in demonstrating how easily things can go wrong. In no case is it essentially the character's fault. They have all three been caught up in situations that they could not cope with and made bad decisions. There, but for the grace of God one might say, go we all. But the most important part of Forum Theatre comes next: this is where the audience get the chance to make their contribution and intervene.

Under the subtle but expert guidance of Terry O'Leary, they vote on one of the stories to pursue and they are asked to think about any point in it when acting differently might have made a difference, when they think the protagonist made a mistake. They play is then performed again, members of the audience calling stop whenever it reaches a moment when they see a chance for the character (at the performance I saw they chose Lucy) to act or answer differently. The person who has called out 'Stop' then goes up on stage and acts out their alteration, the cast improvising around the alteration. They don't simply allow a total change of direction, the intervener may have to work quite hard to make things happen differently, or even fail in the attempt.

More than one person may wish to take that point to offer a different course of action and there may be some audience discussion on what difference it may make. There will then be several other points of intervention offering more alternatives. In this particular case there seemed a general feeling that Lucy needed more training before she could be expected to cope with the strains of social work (in this case with asylum seekers and immigrants, especially a lesbian whom the Home Office is sending back to Uganda where she fears persecution) and that, however eager she was to repay the help she had herself been given, she was too fragile to handle the enormous emotional strain and to keep herself from direct involvement with her clients.

Other performances would have other outcomes and with the much smaller audiences usual in hostel situations discussion is no doubt more intimate. It doesn't stop there, for these performances will spark of discussion and reassessment long after the departure of the Cardboard Citizen's company (all of whom have themselves been homeless in the past).

It is striking how eagerly audience participate: there is a strong identification with the problems being explored and the urge to contribute seems to overcome any shyness about getting up in public. In fact the very act of doing so and having your ideas presented and debated is clearly a tremendous booster to their confidence which one hopes has some lasting effect.

This showcase can't quite replicate the more usual performances of their tour which goes free into its venues but is a valuable opportunity to see the work that they are doing. You can find out more about these tours, or ask for a visit, on their website at www.cardboardcitizens.org.uk

Cardboard Citizens also uses drama classes and productions to extend and their work with the homeless and others in the past they have collaborated on shows with the RSC and others and there is an ongoing programme of community and other productions.

There is a final free showcase at Amnesty International on 30th November 2010 (book at www.amnesty.org.uk/events_details.asp?ID=1643 ) but members of the public are sometimes able to attended performances during the tour: email [email protected] if you would like to be considered.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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