Pros: Darkly witty with expert characterisation.
Cons: Not really proper con, but it’s quite affecting and saddening.
Beyond Caring, at the extremely on-trend Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick, tells the story of cleaners on temporary contracts in a meat factory. The four individuals, for the most part sent by agencies, turn up one evening unaware of the nature or duration of their work. Their passports/ID are taken and they are given a quick tour, which hardly holds up as training. They are then sent on their way asked to report back the next evening for a full shift.
The piece follows their, almost non-stop, cleaning of the factory over the night shift. Overseen by a feckless and arrogant supervisor, Ian, they only stop for very short, strictly timed breaks. During which, as the days pass, they get to know each other a little better. As they interact it becomes clear these are characters that live in severe isolation stricken with economic, emotional and sometimes physical limitations and instability. As they yearn for something better they see things in each other that aren’t there, acting out vain attempts to fill gaping voids.
The new writing from Alexander Zeldin is informed by first hand research including interviews with people working in such conditions. It highlights the plight of those on temporary and zero hour contracts, who are at the mercy of their employers. The desperation for income results in the acceptance of being treated and talked to like children, scolded for not meeting unrealistic deadlines and bullied for not being able to work in certain ways because of their physical inabilities. They are unable to challenge the ways they are paid or how they can get time off because it’s out of their supervisor’s hands. It’s the remit of the faceless, inflexible job agency.
The writing is very witty and the comic timing and characterisation from the cast is faultless all round. There are laugh out loud moments but as you laugh your thoughts are heavy. It’s easy to laugh, especially at one moment in particular where Ian conducts a job evaluation with one of the characters willing them to reflect on their performance. The utter sham of this is infinitely relatable to anyone who has ever had a job I suspect. How can one take practical steps to overcome a dislike of time-pressured tasks? Does one approach ones duties in a lively manner? The whole process is patronising, verging on inhuman if you think about it properly for a moment.
The piece is framed as a play about zero hour contracts. It is. Given all the coverage of zero hour contracts in the press over the last little while it could be viewed as political, uncovering uncomfortable truths and challenging the government for not intervening. It does obviously. However, as Zeldin comments in an online interview it’s not a ‘political’ play. It cannot provide all the evidence either for or against the continuance of zero hour contracts. It can shed damning light on how they are abused. More disturbingly it can provide a haunting snapshot of what life is like in some parts of the UK right now.
It can demonstrate that for some people the status quo is simply unacceptable. And yes this isn’t a novel realisation. We all know there are those worse off than ourselves. But this play expertly brings this home. It’s saddening and anger making, but also highlights how easy it is to forget that situations like this exist around us. Thus even if, at the very least, you can watch Beyond Caring, gain a little perspective and know that, as I did, you will walk away with heavy but ultimately helpless thoughts, it’s still worth it. It’s not running for much longer, and should be seen!
Written and Directed by: Alexander Zeldin and the Company.
Producer: Tamara Moore for The Yard Theatre.
Set designer: Natasha Jenkins.
Sound designer: Josh Grigg.
Lighting designer: Marc Williams.
Booking Until: Saturday 26 July.