Broke – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse

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Broke – Review

West Yorkshire Playhouse, February 2015

by Pauline Cooper

Poverty and debt in modern-day Britain. The benefits system and the people who claim benefits. These subjects divide opinion in many communities. The complex cycle of debt, encompassing students, those at the start of a career, parents, class, politicians, the banking system, lenders and business leaders. Issues that affect everyone. These and more are examined by the multi award-winning Paper Birds. Their work aims to be diverse, relevant and thought-provoking. Broke is the first show in a trilogy about class.

broke playhouse leedsTaken from interviews taken across the UK in 2014, the production explores what it means to be broke. It uses real-life stories from the front-line of poverty and debt. Read any newspaper, or switch on the television and surf channels – it is likely there will be political commentators from across the spectrum sounding off about poverty-stricken families living on the breadline in Britain. Discussions on absent fathers, feckless parents and what measures should be put in place to tackle the problems are commonplace.

We have an obesity crisis which is worsening daily. We have a food industry that wastes thousands of tons of edible food every week. Supermarkets sit next to much-needed food banks. Millions of pounds is spent on advertising. Banks offer too-good-to-be true interest rates, buy-now-pay-later deals, payday loans, zero percent loans, gaming, bingo, the lottery. Against this head-spinning background is Sally. She is a single mum doing the best she can for her young son.

“Quality of writing”

Sally is among those who discusses in interviews her lifestyle, shopping habits and relationship with money. At use is an innovative technique against an unusual set. Lighting, illustrations, sound and vision all combine and play a part. The company steps away from the ‘gritty realism, kitchen sink, hard as nails,’ view of working class neighbourhoods often portrayed on stage and screen. Instead they examine Sally’s predicament in a heartfelt, thoughtful way, with humour and dignity.

broke leeds review playhouseDevised by artistic director Jemma McDonnell, the role of Sally is shared with Kylie Walsh. Composition and sound designer Shane Durrant provides clever technical effects and additional dialogue. All three seamlessly interact and the quality of writing moves the play through the scenes easily.

A simple bunk bed and wooden blocks represent several scenarios. There is Sally’s home, the supermarket and the food bank, as the increasingly-desperate mother dreams of a better life. She is not dreaming of untold luxuries, just enough to be a good mother. She even, heart-breakingly, considers whether her son would be better off without her.

“Socially relevant”

The non-judgemental message of the piece is that Sally’s life is like millions who struggle. Millions who live quietly and resolutely, mostly without complaint. Compare this to the hysterical newspaper headlines highlighting a greedy and immoral benefits culture. A culture that attracts anger and resentment.

The Paper Birds are a Leeds company who have been running since 2003. They develop original productions and work in local communities. The company strives to create and share work which is culturally and socially relevant and observational – and always from the female perspective. The small, intimate atmosphere of the Courtyard theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse accommodated this production perfectly.

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