One thing I particularly like about Camden People’s Theatre is the short introduction to each show given by Artistic Director Brian Logan. Before tonight’s performance, he addressed the subject of working class representation in the Arts, a topic currently in the media spotlight following an industry report into the issue.
“Where are all the working class people? Here”, he said.
As a people’s theatre, the venue is committed to producing shows that represent and attract a cross section of society. In fact, this was the opening night of the theatre’s two-week Common People Festival, a series of shows dedicated to exploring the experiences of, and showcasing the talent of, the working class.
Jackie Hagan’s This is Not a Safe Space is the headline act – and it’s clear why. It’s smart and feisty, an authentic portrayal of life for disabled working class people, and how they are forced to fight against a system which continually fails and undermines them.
The piece seamlessly merges poetry, monologue and comedy to not only depict the hard reality of working class life, but to evoke the less tangible emotions and feelings that come with it.
The show is punctuated by audio recordings from interviews with disabled working class people. They tell various stories about their lives, often funny but tinged with sadness. A man laughs candidly about one of the multiple illnesses he has; ‘I can’t even pronounce it but I’ve got it’. These clips are both heart warming and eye opening, but could be better incorporated into the broader structure of the piece.
However, they are a useful way of incorporating multiple voices, creating a patchwork portrait of the diversity of working class lives. Katharine Heath’s genius set complements this – it is a jumble of homely clutter, featuring a dolls house, TV set, soft toys and other paraphernalia of ordinary life. Towards the end these displays are rotated to reveal tall tower blocks flickering with lights, a poignant moment to reflect on the vastness of these issues.
One of the show’s main strengths is Jackie’s warmth as a performer, and the fact that she’s just really bloody funny. Whether she’s talking about disability or class, her comedy is witty and down-to-earth. She doesn’t sugar coat or glamorise working class life, but her piece is a welcome antidote to the likes of Benefits Street – all humans have flaws and vices, no matter which class bracket they fall into.
She takes devices used by authorities to denigrate working class people and flips them on their head, exposing just how harmful they can be. At one point she reads questions from her own version of a PIP form (used to determine what benefits disabled citizens receive). When asked ‘How would you like to be contacted?’ one of the options is ‘With respect’.
As benefits continue to be slashed, the NHS struggles under funding cuts and the media perpetuates hateful rhetoric, This is Not a Safe Space is a forceful wakeup call about the need for more humanity in British society.