Hot on the heels of Ken Loach’s successful film, I Daniel Blake, depicting the ordeals of claimants wrestling with the UK’s welfare to work system, comes a more modest but sympathetically crafted offering in a production of Katherine Soper’s Wish List.
Performed in the Royal Court’s tiny Jerwoood, Studio Theatre, the play features the struggles of a young carer, Tamsin (Erin Doherty) and her brother Dean (Joseph Quinn), nineteen and seventeen respectively. It highlights their vulnerabilities, in Tamsin’s case, to the extremes of a rapacious employer, obfuscating a heartless system in the management jargon of a “fulfilment centre.”
Here workers are expected to give their all in pursuit of increasingly one sided and unrealistic production targets, while on the home front Dean is an unemployed wreck, needing help but rarely keeping his medical appointments.
Tamsin and Dean are living on the bread line and without parents. Dean is suffering from some form of obsessive/compulsive disorder and though he has been found “fit for work” in a work capability assessment, he is clearly a long way from getting back into the workforce. Tamsin is the sole bread winner and is seen starting work in a mail order packing house (which could easily be the infamous Sports Direct, complete with penalty points and intrusive cameras) whilst at the same time supporting Dean and his medical condition and battling with anonymous authorities over the issues of his benefit entitlement.
As in Loach’s film, the iniquities of a discredited medical fitness for work assessment system, feature large. In Wish List there is added complexity in the dilemma facing Tamsin and Dean, arising from the unpredictability of Dean’s illness, Tamsin’s resulting anxiety in leaving him whilst she goes to work and the problems of lodging a convincing appeal when Dean’s mental condition and self-harming presents barriers to straightforward presentation of facts for his reassessment.
More centrally however, is the challenge to Tamsin in juggling her caring with a job in which all the worst iniquities of speed-up and control of low paid workers on zero-hours contracts are ever present. The pettiness of restrictions and exploitative nature of the job, the inhuman controls placed on Tamsin, the intrusion into her privacy (she is seen providing a urine sample and a cheek swab – presumably as drugs tests) and the system of penalty points for ridiculous “transgressions” including taking time out to go to the toilet, ring all too true as aspects of modern workplaces at their exploitative worst.
Tamsin and her sole work colleague Luke (Shaquille Ali-Yebuah), are seen as powerless in relations with their manager, “the Lead”, (Alexsander Mikic) who ominously wields the big stick and hands out warning points for failure to work quickly enough, though in due course he reveals his own “rock and a hard place” situation, as his dominance softens to reveal some insecurity.
The production whilst spare (and needing more noise and clatter in the packing house scenes in particular), is carried off well with superb performances by the whole cast. Ali-Yebuah and Doherty give accomplished performances with a nice blend of hesitancy, wonderful facial expression and power in Doherty’s character Tamsin. It deserves a larger stage and bigger audience at some point, though the studio “in the round” format suits it well.
Audience members, curious to learn something of the history of a famous worker rebellion against such modern sweatshops, might make the short underground journey to Willesden Public Library and Museum, where Brent Council, in association with the TUC and the local Trades Union Council, has arranged a special exhibition to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Grunwick Strike. Wish List’s “the Lead”, could so easily have been snatched from the shop floor at Grunwick on the day tempers erupted in 1976.
Wish List, by Katherine Soper, Director Matthew Xia is Performed at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs - Royal Court Theatre, Sloan Square
Grunwick 40 We are the Lions: an Exhibition Commemorating the Grunwick Strike 1976-78, is at the Library at Willesden Green, 95 High Road, London NW10 2SF