Having spent 16 years working in social housing the story of Sheila Seleoane is one that I am well aware of. It’s also a story that, whilst extreme, isn’t really as surprising as people might believe! On more than one occasion during my housing career I’ve found myself sniffing through a letterbox to decide if we had better get the police around or not. And yes, on more than one occasion we did find a deceased tenant who had clearly passed away more than the day before. It’s not a pleasant thing.
Maggots is inspired by that true story of Sheila Seleoane, whose body remained undiscovered in her flat for more than two years. Told from the viewpoint of a group of neighbours who knew something was wrong but were unable to get their housing association to take any action, it demonstrates a catalogue of missed opportunities, ineptness, jobsworths. From personal experience, it is also a symptom of the austerity that has left housing associations cutting way too many corners to save a few extra pounds.
It all starts with a “suspicious stench”, and even the mention of those words early on brought the sickly smell back to my nostrils. After that, the three narrators weave their way around the day to day lives of a collection of neighbours; offering a mix of the mundane as they continue on as normal, and the not quite so ordinary as they try to get someone to listen to them when they say something isn’t right, and that no one has seen the neighbour for some time.
The use of these three narrators, Farah Ashraf, Antonette Harrison and Ross Kernahan, to tell the tale in this way is a great success, allowing them to play off one another and pass the story along. It also allows for the more mundane details to still retain pace in their telling, avoiding things becoming stagnant. Jess Barton’s direction further helps to avoid any onset of boredom from an often circular story. As slow and as ordinary as the neighbours’ progress may be, the three narrators are constantly on the move around the room, giving us plenty to focus upon.
What Farah Najib successfully manages with her fast-paced script is to show how, in the mundanity of our day to day lives, we can just carry on, even when something is so clearly wrong. It also highlights how people can come together through such adversity, and that community can be formed out of tragedy. Ultimately it makes Maggots a story of community and hope rather than of the ineptness and sadness that linger, like that stench, all around.
It’s hard to tell, though, whether it’s down to my inside knowledge of the realities of social housing or because the story focuses on too many characters that the emotional toll of the story and ultimate discovery of Shirley (renamed here to make it clear that this is a work of fiction and not the true story of Sheila) failed to really have the impact it should have on me. It’s more likely the former, because as we were leaving one lady was close to tears and declared she felt the story had been very sensitively handled. It’s safe to say I probably viewed Maggots from a slightly different vantage point!
What is left lingering come the end is how easily this can happen; how even today, when we may believe we all live in a connected world, there are people who are still isolated and could go some time without anyone really noticing their absence. But more importantly, we’re also left with a positive belief that communities can still come together at times of stress and that sometimes good emerges from tragedy.
Written by: Farah Najib
Directed by: Jess Barton
Produced by: Ross Kernahan for Fight or Flight
Maggots plays at Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 10 February. Further information and bookings can be found here.