Originally published on Exeunt
Kings is my pick of The Vaults Festival 2017. There, I said it. A bold opening statement, but sometimes it’s easier just to blurt these things out straight away, no messing about.
Building on the successes of Cornermen and Happy Dave, Smoke and Oakum Theatre have constructed a witty, insightful show that throws a spotlight on a group of individuals we are all too happy to forget about in society. They ask us for spare change as we pass them on the street, laden with Starbucks mugs and shopping bags and briefcases, stepping around them so as not to get our heels or skirts or three-piece suits dirty before we rush on with our busy lives. First world problems, they occupy the majority of time in our consciousness. But when the homeless are the subject of as powerful a production as this, it is impossible not to sit, to listen and to take on board the struggles that these people face on a daily basis, all of which scream louder than our own complaints and render them obsolete background noise.
Ebi (Andy McLeod) and Bess (Helen Belbin) are old hands on the circuit. They have even put down roots, to a certain extent – a railway arch that is dry enough for them to pitch their tatty tents and make safe their worldly possessions. Hannah (Isaura Barbé-Browne) is new to the streets, taken under their wing for safety and because she is young and attractive, so always comes back with the lion’s share of the daily takings. £9 is considered a good day. That’s 3 Starbucks, or 3 Boots Meal Deals, or 1 GBK burger. Is it a life, or is it merely survival? Lord Of The Flies springs to mind. Yet the three seem happy and settled, they argue and quibble just like a typical familial unit. Oli Forsyth stays true to his successful writing style – real people having real conversations about real life. Emotive; empathetic; exceptionally talented in the nuances his script conjures forth.
Caz (Madeleine MacMahon) comes in one rainy night and upsets the apple cart, an ironic metaphor that would have been welcome if it provided extra food for the group. Bess, the protective mothering feline, sense a threat – she hisses, her fur on end and her defences well and truly up. Caz is new, she does magic tricks and pulls alcohol out of nowhere. She immediately impresses naïve Hannah and bumbling Ebi. A territorial war ensues. Sam Carrack keeps the tension and the pace up throughout the show between these two, a constant tug of war for superiority. Caz is a younger model and a true salesperson. She swaggers around stage, lives in the moment and takes what she wants. Does she have morals? Probably not; when you live on the streets, can you afford to?
As the tale unfolds, Bess is left in the cold. Her schemes and tricks to try and keep the group together are revealed – are they deceptions and lies to scam Hannah out of social housing, or are they attempts to protect her pack, when Forsyth subtly reveals that Hannah won’t ever be eligible after her past mistakes. The naïve little girl is so ready to let others help her, she has no idea of how to help herself. Barbé-Browne’s performance matches her character – initially unsure and unable to keep up with the other more experienced performers, she grows into herself, snaps out of her immature haze and starts to truly own the role. Belbin’s Bess is guarded and inflammatory, born of circumstance. The tussle for power against Caz (MacMahon) is electric – sparks constantly fly and the audience are left guessing who will gain the upper hand. McMahon has true swagger, inner confidence in her characterisation that oozes out onto the stage with effortless energy.
Kings is a team effort, every member of cast and crew completely in sync to produce a stylish show, packed full of meaning and tackling the questions that are all too easily swept under the carpet. Forsyth’s script shines through it all, the core of the production that forces open audience eyes to truly see the world around. Now when we go about our daily commute, power walking to our high-powered city jobs in suits and heels, we feel the pang of guilt that makes us stop and help. At least a few quid to try and put food in the belly of a hungry homeless man that we see every day sat outside the office. We may give to charities but we don’t give to people – have we truly forgotten that charity beings at home?
Director: Sam Carrack
Producer: Smoke & Oakum Theatre
Writer: Oli Forsyth
Design: James Barbour (Lighting); Diarmaid Browne (Sound); Darragh Browne (Sound); Emma Forsyth (Image)
Cast: Andy McLeod; Madeleine MacMahon; Helen Belbin; Isaura Barbé-Browne
Kings plays The Vaults until 5 March. For more details, see the website.