JOE GILL reports on a damning theatrical indictment of government austerity in the run up to the election
Tighten Our Belts
Brighton People’s Theatre
Hangleton Community Hall
IT'S festival time and Brighton’s venues are at their busiest. Some of the tourists enjoying the shows will no doubt come across the harsher side of life on the coast as they walk past a homeless person under abridge. This is a city that has 20,000 people on the housing waiting list.
Opening up the arts to people who don’t normally attend the festival isat the heart of the agenda of the festival's guest director Kate Tempest.
“The arts should be social, not elitist,” she says. “They should be part of our everyday life. They should be in our communities, not only on elevated platforms or behind red velvet ropes.”
Tempest’s own music and work show a personal commitment to the voices of ordinary people in the arts and for the festival she has joined forces with Brighton People’s Theatre (BPT), founded by Naomi Alexander, to bring a programme of works out into working-class communities in the city.
Tighten Our Belts, BPT’s indictment of government-imposed austerity, has a cast of unpaid actors – all volunteers with their own stories to tell of living at the rough end of austerity Britain – who line up one by one onstage.
They use lecterns from which they read the lines and the lines on their faces tell their own story as they recount a day in the life of Cam,Sheila and Brandy, waking up in “the less salubrious parts of Brighton.”
Each in turn gives a snapshot of the day, from waking, feeling physical pain or struggling inwardly with the business of survival. Brandy,played by the wonderfully unaffected Jane Rist, works at Tesco and must go to claim her Employment Support Allowance. She plans her day around the TV schedule and DVD box sets.
The drama is in the battleground of DHSS offices, work capability assessments and sanctions.
Sheila is a benefit claims assessor and has no time for Brandy’s explanation for missing an appointment. “A misunderstanding is not a valid excuse,” she says. Brandy protests and is escorted from the building by security guards.
Meanwhile Cam, suffering from severe back pain, struggles to get to the benefits office to look for work and is optimistic that staff will assist him in a job search. No such luck.
Despite the grim subject matter, there’s plenty of humour and Kirsty Martin’s songs, played on guitar by Lou Noble and delivered by the cast,have subversive lyrics providing a catchy accompaniment to this depiction of modern British injustice.
One of the cast, an impassioned and edgy Ken Lynch, breaks rank with the others as they blame the government for their woes. “I admire Theresa May for calling an election,” he says.
It’s a reminder that millions out there still have some faith in the system and no doubt will cast their vote for more of the same. Sheila may berate her clients but at home she is furious at herself for not helping Cam and Brandy in their hour of need.
She remembers the days before sanctions when claiming the dole was not systematic state-enforced cruelty.
After the DHSS office, we are at a food bank, where small acts of human kindness give Cam the hot meal that he so desperately needs, while the loan of a Walkman sees him uplifted by Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending.
But, in the end, it is a slow-burning anger and political awakening that unites these individuals and conflates their lonely struggle into a call to revolt. The cast mime some inner torment, first alone, and then finally form an army of the dispossessed.
Theresa May and the Tories are the enemy, with reminders written on white card of the terrible statistics of death and suffering inflicted since 2010 — two-and-a-quarter million sanctioned and 2,380 dead within six weeks of being sanctioned over two years to 2014. How many more have died since?
By the end we feel we know all these people in some way, even if we haven’t been in their shoes.
The quietly dignified Richard Ince calls us to our feet with a commanding gesture. It's cathartic, and the audience shouts its approval.
But do the people outside the community hall, who didn’t come today,feel the same way? That’s the million-pound question that hangs in the air after the applause dies down.