Friday 17 June 2016

Review Happy To Help

Francis Beckett finds a young writer's analysis of the cut-throat cash and carry culture fulfils an urgent need for fierce political playwriting by a new generation.

Happy to Help
by Michael Ross

The Costs Of Convenience

Last night I met the young radical playwright for whom we have waited for far too long. His name is Michael Ross, he works as a sales assistant in the bookshop at the National Theatre and I had never before heard of him.  

I met him in the interval of his press night. His play Happy to Help does for twenty first century Britain what Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman did for 1950s' America. There has never been a time when we need radical political theatre so urgently and have so little of it. 

Here, at last, is a great, bold, angry play about the human cost of twenty first century capitalism, tightly and densely plotted in a very traditional way and peopled with real individuals whom we can understand and care about.

In the 1950s and 1960s we had playwright Arnold Wesker, many of whose plays are angry, socialist statements about working-class life turned into urgent theatre, as well as Trevor Griffiths and others. 

Then came David Hare, Caryl Churchill and others, who, in the 1980s, enabled theatre to rise to the challenge of Thatcherism. Churchill's Serious Money ends memorably with the City traders' anthem for the 1987 general election:

"pissed and promiscuous, the money's ridiculous
send her victorious for five fucking morious 
Five more glorious years"

The likes of Hare can still command the biggest stage in the country, the National Theatre, for overtly political work. But they do it differently now. 

Hare's The Power of Yes in 2009 was billed as a dramatic attempt to understand the financial crisis by interviewing experts. He said it was not a play but a story and he was right: properly subbed, it would have made an excellent New Statesman feature. But it was not a play. Anyway, Hare was a writer of an earlier generation.

The few new political writers talked about race and gender, not class and money. It was starting to look as though, after 30 years of neo­liberal government, theatre had given up hope of changing the economic balance of power. 

Perhaps theatre’s growing reliance on commercial sponsorship squeezes out radical theatre, as the former Arts Council chief, the late Sir Roy Shaw, warned us it might.

The best new political playwright to have emerged in the last several years that I’m aware of is Steve Waters, whose play about the introduction of free schools, Little Platoons, arrived at the Bush Theatre in 2011, and its canvas was far more limited than that of  Happy To Help, Ross’s play. 

In the first scene, a farmer, driven to destitution by the supermarkets, is forced to sell his land to one of them. Immediately we move on 15 years, to the inside of the resulting Frisca supermarket, with underpaid shelf stackers bullied by managers who are themselves bullied in turn by the top brass at head office. There’s talk of forming a union, but that sort of talk brings swift retribution. 

Then Managing Director Tony (Charles Armstrong) arrives to spend a week undercover as "Derek" on the shop floor, and see for himself the staff morale he believes he has created.

The play is full of pointedly funny one liners. Let’s have Christmas Day shopping, says the Managing Director: “This is a secular country, for God’s sake. If we do have a religion any more, it’s shopping.…. It’s only right that our places of worship should be open.” 

When a young shelf stacker, Josh (Ben Mann), suggests forming a union, his mate Elliot (Jonny Weldon) says no: “I’m an anarchist. Joining a union is like putting a few cushions down in your cage.” “Union agitation” says the manager Vicky (Katherine Kotz) “pollutes the stream from which we all draw sustenance.” “I don’t have a fallback” says Josh, a would-be rock star forced into supermarket drudgery. “If you have a fallback, you end up falling back on it.”

Happy To Help is expertly directed in minimalist manner by Roxy Cook and a fine cast,  also including David Baukham and Rachel Marwood,, make the most of the characters.

This play isn’t perfect. Bits of the plot still creak. One or two smaller characters, especially the big cheese from the USA, feel like types rather than people. Yet it s hits home overall and Happy to Help merits a green light. It looks to me like the theatrical arm of Owen Jones’s challenging books Chavs - Ross told me he used Chavs as a source of information on supermarkets - and The Establishment.

Right now it’s confined to the Park Theatre’s smaller stage, part of the Park’s script accelerator programme for new writers and producers. I hope the National Theatre does not take too long to work out that it has an important emerging radical playwright under its nose. It’s that thin, rather shy young man serving customers in the downstairs bookshop.

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