Writer: Luke Barnes
Director: Will Hammond
Reviewer: Charlie Senate
Before the show begins, as the audience filters in, the cast meanders about the stage: vocalising, stretching, centering, shaking loose their bodies. It is a very Brechtian approach that will seep into the main action in the form of a building-block set and a handful of blatant character-to-audience addresses. But, the critical engagement sought by such an approach is largely lost in the muddle of the play’s telling. So, before the lights dim and the music kicks in, it all just seems like a bunch of actors making whooping noises.
The story revolves around John’s lifelong tug-of-war with the seemingly inescapable realities of his working class life and the limitations — to his wealth, happiness, aspiration — that they represent. As keen as this is the sense that those realities are imposed by outside forces, forces that can neither be overcome nor averted, the persistent, crushing weight of a foot pressing down on a poor man’s spine. That pressure remains palpable throughout his life, from childhood to old age, and eventually forces John (Connor Lee Dye) onto a path he swore he would never follow.
Things do get better after the music kicks in, but it takes a while to get there. The play is burdened by a generally weak script that only begins to find its footing in the second half. Many scenes seem arbitrarily dropped in. For example, a scene in which some of the characters drop acid that, while a source of a few laughs, seems, in the moment, as though it has been included on the basis of a prize-wheel spin. Understand, there is much ambition in this script — and this should be commended — but unfortunately that ambition is rarely realised. The prosaic dialogue reveals a working caste devoid of its characteristic character (the only thing, apparently, that makes these characters working class is the dirt perpetually smeared on their faces) and the pageant of accents (read: Parade of Nations) robs the play of any sense of place and, thereby, any real sense of community or common struggle. And though the play does deliver a few stirring moments, much like The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, it probably should have ended ten minutes earlier.
That said, despite a cast of 12 (all third year acting students at Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts), the acting is generally quite strong. There really are no weak performances, just bigger and smaller roles. Matilda Weaver is particularly memorable as John’s wife Evelyn, delivering on more than one heartfelt speech and (literally) in one uncomfortably convincing birthing scene. Likewise, James Botterill is excellent as baddy Derek, bringing a loafing, hunchbacked physicality to the role. The wonderful set, designed by Jasmine Swan, evokes a sense of broadness and space and is often used to great effect. The sound design is similarly superb, though, on this opening night, is poorly executed, particularly during scene transitions.
But, for all its admirable turns, Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? all too often watches like a middle-class take on a working class problem. Watch this play for its set and its performances, not for its ideas.
Runs until 5 March 2016 | Image: Contributed