Monday 1st July 2019 at Harrogate’s Royal Hall (on the stage, in the round).
Little Cog and ARC are delivering important work with Another England, written and directed by Vici Wreford-Sinnott. It’s a story centred on marginalised characters in a broken society who are reflections of real marginalised groups in our screamingly fractured society. It’s produced and performed by a disabled-led theatre company and seeks to deliver some blunt political commentary.
The company and show do an awful lot in the way of inclusivity; the actors smoothly provide audio description of their actions as they perform, BSL interpreter Sue Lee is beautifully integrated in providing another platform for access and this performance used the stage of the Royal Hall to ensure that the performance was fully physically accessible. Going the extra mile, the company’s handout also encourages the audience to move around and shift their seats if they see fit. It’s inclusivity in all its glory and we need to see more of it.
When it comes to the production itself however, the results are not quite so impressive. For all its good intentions and aptly selected subject matter, the plot is meandering and the messages delivered are spelled out in disappointingly bold lettering. You’ll get no argument from me about the messages of the play being loud and clear and fantastic, but it has to be said that the vehicle they arrive in needs an MOT.
Philippa Cole is the likeable go-getter Rat: the liberal, the leftie; the humanitarian in a world going kaboom in ethical terms. She’s seeking refuge in an abandoned house in an effort to escape the prowling powers that be (Nick Hare’s great lighting design inserts some welcome style via search lights swooping in periodically) and the fate of other disabled people: camps for those ‘less useful’. There are too many migrants to support you see, so those unable to uphold the workforce as well as others; those seen as ‘weak’, are to be swept up and shut away. ‘Keep costs down’ is clearly the mantra of this cruel and unbending government.
In this house Rat meets the troubled and imperious Murphy, played by Andrew Mclay – he’s the ‘patriot’, the bigot, the egotist and the human contradiction of the play. Naturally, the pair clash and in doing so deliver a very obvious but needed message: just because two characters are aligned as disabled, it does not follow that their values and views are also automatically aligned; all groups are compiled of individuals. We find that Murphy’s neglect of ‘his own’ has interesting origins and his views of himself offer up some of the play’s more notable and insightful moments of dark truths.
There are some nicely entertaining moments via interjections of surreal game shows that the pair apparently act out to pass time. The game shows harpoon the treatment of the disabled and there are some great moments hitting the nail on the head when it comes to inherent disrespect and patronising behaviours. But the intended humour doesn’t always land securely and those abstract departures from the reality of their clashing views and the stagnation of the empty house don’t feel particularly sound structurally. There’s so much potential here but it too often feels like the pieces of the puzzle are crammed in at random with the stronger parts too fleeting and the less interesting parts too extended.
There are of course important messages though. The plot looks at too often overlooked members of our society in the here and now, imagining their future just five years away. It’s not a pretty picture. It paints disturbing parallels with concentration camps, migrant camps and a little of the extremes of The Handmaid’s Tale thrown in too. Rights and humanity are being systematically stripped away and it’s a case of fight, flight or hide away. But it’s all talking in circles so despite two very capable, engaging actors making great use of the physical set-up (which places audiences in the round, with four points of interest dotted around it), it’s not enough to bring this piece to life with any kind of urgency or great gravity.
Another England offers itself as vital work, and it’s right to do so. We most definitely need more theatre work by and for marginalised groups. We need more performances to be as accessible and as inclusive as this one. But we also need the material itself to be strong and impactful. This is a play which essentially sits stock still and observes two characters cooped up in a house, trapped in a cycle of declaring their views only to be rebutted by the other. Neither really listens though they do by chance learn a thing or two about one another.
The crux of the issue is that there’s really very little sense of progression so while Another England has all the ingredients of a powerful play about big and important ideas, it isn’t yet perfected and the end product doesn’t rise to the heights of its potential. Perhaps it could work in a shorter form, but as it stands it feels significantly over-long in its repetitiveness.
Little Cog are well worth looking up – they are dedicated to vital work and there’s great promise in what I saw here. Site here. Twitter: @littlecog1