Writer: Jo Emery
Director: Ian Hylands
Jo Emery’s play Rough Sleeper, which toured a handful of venues in Hertfordshire in 2020, has been reworked for the screen by Ian Hylands whose filmed version is now available from The Actors Centre On Demand. Setting out to dispel our prejudices and presumptions, filmed on a Southampton Street, Emery’s play is ‘a reminder that the system isn’t working’.
Outside a disused department store due for demolition, a rough sleeper is approached by a playwright wanting to hear his life story. As the man reflects on the treatment he receives from passers-by and the local Council, his looks back on his life as a builder, developer and highflier with expensive tastes and a loving family. So what changed?
Opening in a semi-empty high street filled with closed stores, Hylands creates a direct association between this dilapidated town centre and the man looking for scraps of food, before ending up outside a disused and abandoned shopfront. It’s a valuable allusion, one that emphasises the economic decline, lack of investment and neglect that has shaped the city and its homeless residents.
Emery uses herself as the frame for this monologue, introducing a slightly stilted interchange as she approaches the Rough Sleeper to ask him to tell his story. This section of the play is filled with exposition about legislation and facts that don’t make for convincing dialogue, and when the protagonist finally begins his tale, the playwright disappears from the frame. What was a conversation becomes much more theatrical in style, directing the performance not into the camera but to an invisible front-on audience.
Once actor Haydn Davis gets into his story, the play settles into an easier rhythm as his biography demands an emotional response. The gear change to this more personal approach tells the story of this man and his experience based on the highs and rapid lows of his life. The writer is more successful here in challenging our dehumanised view of the Rough Sleeper, creating insight and context that draws attention to his individuality.
Davis’ performance gets stronger although it never completely shakes off its stage origins. Often very sympathetic, Davis is particularly good at conveying the changing emotions and frustration his tale evokes, although Hylands could do more to support his performer by employing tighter shots at crucial moments of revelation or introspection.
Hylands employs sound effects and emotive music to aid the process of memory creation, including bells from a clocktower, fights and even a prison that help the audience to imagine the scenarios the character describes.
Yet, as a filmed experience, Rough Sleeper is only partially successful and Hylands cuts between the two cameras every few seconds, often several times in a sentence which becomes too erratic, with minimal use of close-up. However, supported by Crisis, Rough Sleeper has a social purpose and an important story to share by emphasising how homelessness can happen to anyone, and in that respect, it does what it sets out to do.
Runs here until 19 September 2021