5 Pounds Theatre’s presentation of Leon Fleming’s drama about two siblings manoeuvring the benefits system is a story that needs to be told but Fleming’s poor story means the issues get lost.
As someone who grew up with a single parent on benefits I am naturally cynical towards art telling this story. It is never my story and I get frustrated of how the system is presented, or more often than not how it isn’t presented. Helen Budge plays Her, a single mother sandwiched between the caring responsibilities of her children, her ill mother and her younger, mentally ill brother, Him (James Clay). She wants to work but finds the system doesn’t work around her responsibilities offering her poorly paid jobs with unworkable hours. Fleming so desperately wants to present the circumstances; the sanctions, the interviews and all the damn forms and red tape that the storyline for both characters feels weak and poorly formed, which is a shame as both the characters are written so well.
Him has depression and one of my issues with the story is whether he can’t work or whether he won’t work (or is it both?). Fleming’s story doesn’t really move any from the self-entitlement sentiment that the Government and other bashers of those on benefits portray. The flashback scenes to their childhood don’t really aid the storyline but do suggest their is a benefits trap that makes it impossible for certain people to escape.
Director Scott Le Crass has brought his brutalist Birmingham council upbringing to the characters and the set but the story could be set anywhere in the UK. What makes this an interesting 80 minutes are the performances. Helen Budge’s make up less Her oozes stress and concern, she is bright woman failed by the system and failed by herself as she feels she fails to care for others. James Clay’s Him gives a realistic portrayal of depression and of a man who can keep it together when his sister can’t. The best scenes are when they are facing the DWP, arguing their case for why their lives are not easy and why the system is making it even harder.
I am glad Fleming, Le Crass and Hope put this play on but much like I, Daniel Blake it will preach to the converted and not really change attitudes. I yearn for a play that reveals how hard the forms are, how the system needs to manoeuvred (I have personally appealed an ESA claim for my mum and it is hard, stressful procedure that through patience we won) and that being on benefits isn’t easy. Kicked in the Sh*tter comes close to telling that story but it needs to be told better.