“You’re tinkering with a fundamentally unfair system”
The plays that end up in the Sunday/Monday slot at the Finborough have to ride the luck of the draw when it comes to the sets upon which they have to perch, borrowing space as they do from the main show. And for Chris Dunkley’s new play The Precariat, the garishness of Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi’s set has actually worked well here for in having to cover it up with dark drapes, much of design consultant James Turner’s work is then done. It forms the ideal backdrop for the sparse bits of battered furniture and the array of video screens that litter the intimate space in which this tale of a teenage North Londoner trying to find his place in a world decimated by the financial crisis.
Fin is a 15 year old schoolboy and is clearly a bright boy but the road ahead is far from clear. His mother is depressed and disconnected, his younger brother has fallen in with a bad crowd and has started taking drugs and his petty criminal father is barely on the scene. And in a Tottenham still recovering from the seismic shock of the 2011 riots, Fin only sees opportunities shrinking away for him and his brother alike, both in terms of the lack of decent jobs in the immediate future and with the long-term prospects in a society that has been irrevocably broken.
Dunkley is a writer I’ve come to admire (I made my first ever trip to Southampton to see his Smallholding) with a gift for combining powerfully intimate stories with a wider social context, and it is a similar model that he employs here. Sharply observed dialogue captures a visceral sense of how disaffected this world is – Kirsty Besterman is blistering as Bethan, the very epitome of parental dysfunction as she invites her feckless ex over, ostensibly to reconnect with his sons but really just to have a quickie in the flat – and as the dynamics of the family shift with desperation and darkness creeping in from all sides, there’s a pungently compelling depiction of the seemingly inescapable trap that social, economic and cultural deprivation creates.
What works less well is the attempts to locate this drama in the big picture, the proselytising and prophesising about the evils of capitalism and damage that will be consequently wreaked on the world doesn’t ever feel that natural, not least coming out of the mouth of a 15 year old. These references to the wider world feel shoehorned in and though Scott Chambers is superbly naturalistic as the troubled adolescent Fin, he struggles to make such erudition feel genuinely real.
Part of this also comes from a delivery of the North London patois which I personally found near-impossible to decipher at times. It sounds incredibly authentic but so much of his dialogue was swallowed up that I was left grateful for the playtext. Likewise with the sound effects for some of the supporting characters’ voices– drug lord Balthazar is superbly and creepily portrayed through video alone and Fin’s one ray of light is the friendly voice on the other end of the drive-thru intercom who we only ever hear – Chris New’s direction perhaps erred on the side of atmosphere rather than clarity, this was a rare time that my deafness really impacted on being able to fully comprehend a play in such a small theatre.
But New’s use of the video screens is frequently witty and inspired, always feeling an integral part of the production rather than something bolted-on for effect, and he navigates the quicksilver shifts in tone well, balancing the grimness with an everyday levity, reminding us that lives like these are being lived all around us and are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Perhaps the play could have done with a little more ambiguity in its political arguments to create an intellectual debate to match the physical drama, but this still remains an ambitious attempt at capturing something of the modern malaise that is blighting so much of our disaffected youth.