at the Yard Theatre, Friday 4th July 2014
According to statistics, around 1.5 million people are employed by companies which offer them so-called “zero-hour contracts”, thus meaning a good proportion of our workforce is tied to a job which may not offer them any money one week and force them to work unfair hours the next. In Beyond Caring, Alexander Zeldin and his cast consider the alienating and demoralising effects such work can have on individuals, whilst simultaneously offering glittering shards of humanity which splinter up through the decay.
Grace, Susan and Becky have all been forced, for one reason or another, to spend a gruelling fourteen nights working in four-hour shifts cleaning a factory. They are accompanied by Phil, who works full-time, and Ian, their slimy supervisor. Shifts come and go; conversations are stopped and started; relationships are formed and destroyed.
Considering the process of devising this show went through, it’s no surprise the dialogue has a semi-improvised feel, taking on the cadences and pitches of everyday speech to evoke an environment which is so ‘real’ it almost becomes uncomfortable. There are even hints of The Office in the comedy which makes the Beckettian tragedy of it all feel all the more dismal. Occasionally, the pace of the show can be hard to penetrate, but the hyper-reality of it all soon makes total sense with the socio-political comments Zeldin and his cast are making, with this alienation we feel mirroring completely the difficulty the characters have in experiencing true emotion, remaining relatively undemonstrative throughout.
The makeshift feel of the Yard’s auditorium also offers the perfect space for this play, and Zeldin’s direction responds to it intuitively. With bare strip lights lighting up the performers as much as they light up the audience, we become complicit in the action on stage, while the concrete stage and dirty, exposed walls of the theatre itself make total sense in this world. There is, however, something oddly aesthetically pleasing in it all, with a table placed just so, cardboard boxes stacked into precarious prettiness and footsteps counted out methodically to unearth a beauty beneath the harsh exterior.
This beauty runs throughout the text as well as the aesthetic, with moments of tenderness blossoming throughout. For these characters, cooking someone else a pasta salad means stretching out a helping hand, and lending twenty quid can pull a fellow co-worker back from the brink of despair. These three women are constantly given shit by Ian in the form of appraisals, untimely extra shifts and accusations of laziness, but still they pull through with defiance.
The cast of five equally offer one another a helping hand throughout, with each managing to pull of the dual task of remaining distant while connecting on a far deeper level. We see Luke Clarke, therefore, not as an evil manager but as someone who does not have the tools to lead as required and who is just as pressurised as his workforce, and although Sean O’Callaghan’s Phil finds it difficult to help his co-workers in any real sense, his emotional support is far more beautiful. Hayley Charmichael, Janet Etuk and Victoria Moseley give Susan, Grace and Becky an extraordinary depth within minutes of the piece starting, and find soaring arcs within only a few lines of dialogue. Though these characters can (and sometimes do) speak and act appallingly to one another, they end as a tight symbiotic unit even though they may not realise it.
This duality runs throughout Beyond Caring, and defines its attitude to its politics; though our current government and legal system does nothing to help those on zero-hour contracts and is worthy of vitriol and anger, we can always find humanity in those who could easily have bee brutally dehumanised by broken economic structures. Zeldin and his company have created a show which, like the ideas by which it is inspired, is frequently difficult to stomach, but argues that an inherent propensity to care can be found in the most unlikely of places.