Homelessness in London. People living on the streets, begging, sleeping rough. It is a world many of us encounter typically fleetingly as we go about our business. While newbies and out-of-towners are shocked by seeing people with obvious mental health problems, shouting, ranting to themselves for many Londoners they are an all too familiar sight, not batting an eyelid, a sub species, just ghosts in a dystopian reality we would rather not engage with.
In Kings, a play currently showing at the New Diorma theatre, one of the characters says that people do not like to look or dwell too much on homeless people as they know it could easily be them. It is hard to argue with this thought because on a stripped bared level it is evidence that in a rich and prosperous city like London people just like us are in situations of poverty that just the thought of is shudderingly immense and tragic to even start to comprehend. Another remark made in the play is how people think “they deserved it”, that their homelessness is squarely their own fault. I have actually heard educated people say “oh they are just alcoholics”, like it was most likely the by-product of liking booze too much or even an aspiration, getting pissed all the time they love it! It seems beyond ridiculous to think that someone would ever think when I grow up I hope I have an addiction of some sort or mental health issues and really hope to be sleeping out on the streets. But that is effectively what a lot of people are actually saying when they comment with little empathy or compassion about the homeless.
Written and directed by Oli Forsyth Kings puts us in to the world of four homeless people living on the streets. To its credit it is not a typical play you might guess to be about homelessness, overly earnest, making you feel bad or erring to being preachy. Forsyth has created great dialogue for the cast who all excel in great delivery of the fine material. We have the two older characters, Bess and Ebi, who have set up a spot under the arches that they call their own with the younger Hannah who forms part of the group. They are joined by another younger girl in Caz who moves into their lives. The play puts a spotlight onto a number of issues that homeless people have to deal with. For example, the daily begging which as the group of random thrown together individuals seems to cause a lot of squabbling, well not much to be chipper about being on the streets. The younger girls seem to be able to obtain more money than the older duo. Are people more willing to give to younger girls than older men and women? Along with a lot of underlying anger that inevitably surfaces due to their homelessness which is understandable as they have come together for survival rather than their leisure interests, but there are also examples of how the group helps each other out and even find time for a rare group singalong temporarily lifting their spirits.
When the more savy and street wise Caz enters into the lives of the others she changes the discourse away from just a life of day-to-day survival. The matriarchal Bess has been trying to get Hannah a flat but it turns out that Hannah was in fact given a flat and left to get on with it. Hannah admits to the others that she needed more help and just having been handed an empty flat with no additional support was way too much for her to cope with. It feels an all too familiar story. The majority of us are comfortable in the fact that we have friends and family around us to help us cope with the ups and downs of life but imagine a world where that is taken away from you and you are literally left to fend for yourself – that is a reality for many on the streets. The importance of having one person that regularly checks up on a vulnerable person who has been previously homeless or had to fight an addiction has now long been recognised by many social care practitioners. The group know that their world of survival is better with others.
Caz tells the group that they should stop asking and start taking which on the face of it sounds like militant talk but why should the homeless not strive, want more than their meagre, mostly drab existence or have a little more comfort in their lives, or is that just for the ‘upstanding’ members of society? It is quite warming to see the pleasure Hannah, Ebi and Caz get from simply going to the cinema while the downtrodden but fiesty Bess momentarily lights up hearing their story living vicariously saying that it has been years since she went to the cinema.
Located close to Regents Park, the New Diorma Theatre is an eighty-seat intimate venue which on the night we visited to see Kings was nowhere near capacity which was a real shame as the cast were brilliant and the production superb. All proving that you do not necessarily have to see the ‘packed to the rafters’ performance at the National or Sadlers Wells to experience great live cultural artistic endeavours. With theatre as good as Kings I would happily be the only person in the room.
Kings is showing at the New Diorma Theatre until 21st October 2017 www.newdiorama.com
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