Theatre Uncut at Bristol Old Vic

uncutTheatre Uncut was born in 2010 as a response to the coalition’s announcement that public spending in the UK would be cut. A group of playwrights were invited to pen their reactions to these government proposals and their work became downloadable and performable by anyone, rights-free, for a week, the idea being to create ‘mass theatrical action.’

Since then, Theatre Uncut has grown. This year, the company has produced five short plays with the theme ‘Knowledge is Power, Knowledge is Change,’ written by five UK playwrights, all downloadable for a month in 2014 (NOW!), all owned by everyone, internationally. These political plays have been performed in over 20 countries by thousands of people and, furthermore, Theatre Uncut is also piloting a production tour of them.

And, lucky us, Bristol Old Vic’s Basement is hosting the tour for 4 nights.

The Old Vic’s Basement is stark, dark and not particularly comfortable, an alternative to the ornate obviousness of the stunning theatre upstairs. It’s underground, the perfect setting for political theatre such as this, a leftist backlash to the mainstream. Yet, if you just listen to the ideas and opinions that are given voice by the four actors in front of us, this IS mainstream. Or at least, it should be.

The Finger of God by Anders Lustgarten is set in the very-near future, a future in which the masses are manipulated by those with financial and political power. Sound familiar? The National Lottery is losing profit and what better way to kick it into shape than to hand out punishments as well as rewards? After all, ‘The British will accept anything.’ Highlighting the power of social media and a celebrity status for Everyman, this is a powerful Brookeresque tale of greed and manipulation.

Pachamama by Clara Brennan screams pain, as a stream of words and short sentences are spoken, whispered and shouted by the actors standing in a line, trying to make sense of what is happening around them. This is a distressing last cry for help from Mother Earth, “Can’t you see what you are doing to me? What if I were to change the game? What would happen then? How would you cope?”

Reset Everything by Inua Ellams asks how to handle the ‘bedroom tax,’ that financial penalty imposed upon thousands of households that have one more room than they actually ‘need’. Simple, blow up said room! Bang! Everyone can see that – the widowed father, the aching son, the urban healer and even the woman who works for the local housing office. A humourous spin on a serious issue, this highlights the absurdity of rules and regulations that affect the lives of so many.

The Most Horrific by Vivienne Franzmann concentrates on what it is that makes us tick. What do we talk about in everyday life? What do we give credence to and what do we filter out? What is acceptable and what is too painful or complicated to let in? Can’t we just listen and see what is happening all around us? Bankers may well be cunts but what about that Ugandan Lesbian fighting for her survival in Yarl’s Wood, her life depending on immigration law? This piece is raw in the extreme and the subject matter gives us all a (much needed?) slap around the face.

Ira Provitt and the Man by Hayley Squires questions the fundamental essence of a person. When and how do we ‘go bad’?  As an official in the Department of Education gets prepared to push through a paper that will further automate and standardise our already burdened school children, he struggles with his conscience. But should he listen to his inner self, let that voice in? Can one person really make the lives of millions better (or at least, not make them worse)? Relentlessly probing, this last short play of the evening leaves us with as many questions as it answers, while demanding the change that only we can make.

And all of these plays concern our ability to listen. To listen and to be aware; to understand and then to take action. All the information is out there: if only we would slow down and take note, we would see that the pain and madness is all around and maybe we could even help to find a way to help lessen it.

Faith Alabi, Ruairi Conaghan, Ruth Gibson and Conor MacNeill do a superb job of flitting between characters, donning different accents, moving around this set made of boxes in-between plays. Each actor displays the versatility necessary to make this intense experience a memorable one too.

The four actors come together particularly well in The Finger of God, where Gibson and Conaghan play the confident, champagne swilling money-men-in-control, while Alabi and MacNeill are the target market for this new, devastating game. They make you want to shout something like, “Don’t be so ridiculous! Can’t you see what you’re doing?”

The stand out performance (and play) is Faith Alabi as the stand-up comedian in The Most Horrific. Here is a woman trying to understand what is acceptable to share, driven half crazy by real life events that are so shocking, so distressing and so unbelievable that they’re almost funny. Alabi is in tears by the end of her performance, seemingly wiped out by the hideous truth of it all, snot tickling her lips. I have to breathe deeply so I don’t break down too and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I will be seeking out a lot more political theatre; it’s a place I feel comfortable. Who doesn’t want to question to the world? Certainly, we all need to.

Theatre Uncut deserves to be seen by a wider audience so that we can all sit up and take note of what these exciting writers are telling us. I urge you to hop over to their website, see how you can get involved. Keep your eye on these guys; they make sense.

Theatre Uncut is on at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 6th December

– Review by Becky Condron

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