Rigged

Ashmeed Sohoye
Theatre Centre
Unicorn Theatre and touring
(2009)

This beautifully crafted play could not be more topical since it is concerned with the frustrations of a disadvantaged 'underclass' all too easily trapped by failures in education and understanding about which our politicians seem to have belatedly become aware. Theatre Centre aim their work at young audiences and schools but I'd like to make this essential viewing for doctors, social workers, job centre staff, police, lawyers, government officials - anyone who has to interface with the general working-class public - and for MPs and ministers too. What builds that trap and how can you get out of it? Is it rigged?

Ashmeed Sohoye doesn't offer explanations or solutions but he presents a very real chunk of life and shows a compassionate understanding of what it feels like trying to cope in a society that seems to stifle aspiration and block any escape and how the same problems can be passed on from one generation to another. ..

Nathan (Kyle Summercorn) is a lad who feels the world is against him and his frustration turns easily into violence. He struck a teacher and got excluded from his school. Playing fruit machines has become a passion, especially since he once got a payout of £100 - though that all went straight back in the machine. Frustrated by one that never gave him a jackpot he decided it was rigged and smashed it up and turned on those who tried to throw him out. As a result he got landed with an ASBO.

There's a history here of a jailbird dad who taught infant Nathan that the answer to anyone giving him trouble was a smack in the mouth, of his church-going mum Kathy (Daisy Whyte), damaged by that relationship, who hides her lack of literacy, and of Gary (Paul Clerkin), a taxi-driver step-dad who loves him as the son he couldn't have and took out adoption papers but haunts the betting shop - another guy hoping luck will solve his problems. It's a white family; just the kind of people the BNP have been targeting, the sort of boy some people want to put in the army to learn some discipline.

At sixteen Nathan thinks of himself and has got a reputation as a hard man - but girlfriend Sarah (Niamh Webb), struggling in preparation for GCSE, sees much to him than that. He rescued her from the unwanted attentions of an older boy and she has discovered his hidden tender side, with her he even manages to control his tempers. But what will happen when she discovers she's pregnant?

This is not, however, a play about pregnancy and its problems, that is just part of the picture. They are a catalyst for a newly discovered sense of responsibility and produce reactions much more real than the cliché plotting you might expect. Sohoye has created some freshly imagined characters that feel true to life. A lot of young people in Theatre Centre's school audiences will recognize themselves or people they known and identify with their problems. Theatregoing isn't often part of the life of working-class parents like these but if they do see it I can imagine them too coming out saying 'They've said it,' as I personally felt Sohoye does here with tact and sensitivity.

He's written without the jargon of contemporary teenage conversation - there ain't an 'innit' in it - but he's got inside their heads. It is beautifully played by all the cast, and Summercorn's violent Nathan marks him as an actor of extraordinary feeling and sincerity.

Natalie Wilson's production is a carefully constructed blend of naturalism and minimalist stylisation. The actors all stay in view throughout and scenes are separated by miniscule physical segments, often with the characters walking backwards, that give a moment for ideas to sink in as well as bridging the movement forwards and backwards in time and place. Violence is no less disturbing for being strikingly stylized and Neil Irish's setting is stripped down to essentials: a light-flickering fruit machine for one location, a padded stool with dropped betting slips, a kitchen chair on a patch of chequered vinyl and a brick wall, just enough to firmly identify each location (as well as making this a show that is easier to tour) and Stephen Hudson's score gives support without distraction.

This is not a long play: it doesn't run much more than an hour, but it packs a great deal in and presents it with no preaching or political posturing to give us a picture of people too often ignored by media and government except when violence breaks out in their communities who need help and understanding. Rigged highlights the failures in communication that happen daily and can damage lives because those in control cannot envisage the situation of those who do not share their background and the communication skills that come with it. I've already suggested it has a valuable informative role but it is also a fine and enjoyable piece of theatre and that's why it is so effective.

At Unicorn Theatre until 21st November, then 12th November The Junction, Cambridge; 14th November 200 9 Rich Mix, Bethnal Green; 29th January The Hawth, Crawley; 2nd February Anvilarts, Basingstoke; 4th & 5th February New Vic Stoke; 9th & 10th February The Egg, Bath; 12th February: Broadway Barking; 15th - 20th February: Oval House; 23rd February Millfield Theatre; 24th & 25th February York Theatre Royal.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton