Jen McGinley

Fibres

29/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Fibres is Frances Poet’s ‘heath and safety’ play, an emotive response to her discovery that an acquaintance had lost both parents, six months apart, due to asbestos poisoning. Poet’s perception of asbestos as ‘something dangerous from the past’ was exposed as a fallacy; subsequently, she learned that more people die of asbestos-related illnesses each year than die in traffic accidents, that the NHS will be footing the bill for corporate greed/negligence until 2040. Mesothelioma takes between twenty and fifty years to develop, and even brief exposure is enough to kill.

Indeed, the brevity of exposure is a key feature of this play. Jack (Jonathan Watson) only works as a shipbuilder for a few days; he’s nervous about the asbestos dust he’s been warned about, so takes a pay cut and becomes an electrician. He thinks he’s dodged a bullet. His wife, Beanie (Maureen Carr), washes his overalls, a simple domestic act fraught with symbolism, as the fibres enter her lungs too.

As you might expect from Poet, there are many layers to be unravelled here; it’s not a simple polemic. There are parallels drawn between the asbestos fibres and the impact of traditional gender roles on a relationship: a slow, invisible poisoning.

Despite the subject matter, it’s not all doom and gloom. Jack and Beanie are a believable couple, muddling through as best they can. They’re facing the horror with fortitude and humour: Jack loves a bit of comedy, and has a catalogue of cringey jokes. Their daughter, Lucy (Suzanne Magowan), is struggling, but her breakdown is shown through a series of bleakly humorous, hide-your-eyes-behind-your-hands-while-your-toes-curl moments.

Breaches in health and safety protocol are given a human face, in the form of Lucy’s boss, Pete (Ali Craig). They work for a fibre optics company, and he’s up against it, trying to meet the demands of a contract while allowing his workers their requisite study days and sick leave. He’s fed up with the union rep’s ‘unreasonable’ demands, preventing him from getting the job done. We’re shown how it happens, how decent people can be pressured into repeating old mistakes. But Pete is given a chance to learn: his fondness for Lucy redeems him.

If this all sounds a bit po-faced, don’t be misled. This plays as a cleverly written domestic tragedy, with a window onto larger political issues. The actors switch between narration and performance; the set (by Jen McGinley) is a fluid, symbolic space, where the characters flit between life and death, the past and the present, dark humour and even darker anger. Jemima Levick’s assured direction ensures that there is no confusion: we always know where and when events are taking place, the pace allowing us time to digest what’s happening.

Fibres is a vital, heartbreaking play with an important message at its core.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Who Cares?

21/08/19

Summerhall (Main Hall), Edinburgh

Co-produced by LUNG and The Lowry, Who Cares? is a truly heartbreaking piece of verbatim theatre. Based on a year’s worth of interviews with young carers from Salford, writer/director Matt Woodhead has created a devastating account of children taking on responsibilities many adults would shy from, and of a system that callously ignores them.

A level student Jade (Jessica Temple) is old before her time. Her mum’s moved in with her new boyfriend, leaving Jade to look after her dad and brother. Jade’s dad is paralysed; he needs help to shower and use the toilet. Her older brother can’t assist: he has profound learning disabilities, and is deaf as well. Several times a day, Jade FaceTimes her brother from the school toilets to check everything’s okay. She’s struggling to focus on her studies.

Nicole (Lizzie Mounter) is in Year 9. She’s been caring for her mum since she had a stroke when Nicole was four. Nicole keeps acting out at school; she’s on a ‘behaviour plan.’ But no wonder she’s angry: she’s only a kid, struggling to navigate a punitive benefits system, filling in forms to help her mum apply for PIPS. No one at school knows what she’s going through.

Connor (Luke Grant) is a gentle soul. He’s a bit of a geek, devoted to his computer. But his mum has mental health problems, and his dad is physically disabled. Luke’s struggling to balance Year 11 with looking after them. And he’s scared to go home after school, because he never knows what he might find…

These three stories are not unusual. I used to teach in Manchester; I knew children just like these. There are an estimated 700,000 young carers in the UK; it’s about time their voices were heard. It’s hard to be a carer anyway, but at least adult carers get paid (albeit a pittance), at least adult carers aren’t questioned every time they try to pick up a prescription or attend an appointment. These are children, forced to inhabit a grown-up world. Why isn’t there support in place?

The performances are note perfect: these are real people with real lives. I like the high-octane rock music and the choreographed transitions between scenes; I like the onesies, the phones, the games console – reminders that these are normal teenagers, with the same needs as all their peers. The locker-room set (by Jen McGinley) is particularly effective, indicative at once of school, bureaucracy and shuttered-off feelings.

This is a must-see play, a well-deserving recipient of the 2019 SIT-UP award.

Find out more at http://www.whocarestour.org.uk

5 stars

Susan Singfield