KINGS by Smoke and Oakum Theatre – Review

KINGSThere are no kings, or royalty of any sort, in Kings, and it is only in the dying moments of the play that some indication as to why the play is titled as such is revealed. Highlighting the plight of the homeless, it’s not the only production at Vaults Festival 2017 to have done so. Central government, perhaps predictably, is not looked upon favourably, with a notable statistic (I have not bothered fact-checking it) that there are twice as many homeless people now than there were before the Coalition took power in 2010. As for local government, it appears they can only do what they can do. Thankfully, this isn’t a whole show dedicated to the current political climate, which is certainly acknowledged but not overdone.

This group of four have such divergent life experiences it’s a marvel they remain together: elements of the play are not that far removed from reality television series such as MTV’s The Real World or Channel 4’s Big Brother, as characters get frustrated with each other, and misunderstand one another, before it comes, quite literally, to blows.

What is it with theatre and swearing? Eff this, eff that, eff off, eff you, eff you too. I eventually started to find it comical, and I’m not sure that was the play’s intention. Anyway, Bess (Helen Belbin), the self-appointed leader of the group, doesn’t bring in as much income – and therefore food and supplies – as Ebi (Andy McLeod) and Hannah (Isaura Barbé-Browne), who are in turn bested by their newest member, Caz (Madeleine McMahon). It’s clear that Bess’ alpha female pride is wounded, however stoic the words that come out of her (effing) mouth are.

Whatever trust and confidence there may have been towards Bess from the rest of the group is shattered by the play’s critical incident, which – without giving everything away – involves a case of outright lying. Later, when Hannah indulges in pickpocketing, rather than being lauded for securing everyone some dinner money, she is instead taken to task: being hungry and homeless doesn’t mean letting go of common decency. It’s the sort of narrative that I found heart-warming.

But when the show ended, my immediate thought was, “Then what?” It’s almost crying out for a second act. These characters have been planning and discussing their next steps as a group, and just as they have a feasible way forward, the show ends on a cliff-hanger. Do they ever make it out of their current arrangement? What other challenges are the group to encounter if/when they go elsewhere? I happily acknowledge, however, that it’s always better for a production to leave the audience wanting more than to outstay its welcome.

In giving background details, and thus some character development, as to how this quartet came to be where they are now, the play asserts, helpfully, that running away from home should really be an absolute last resort: the long-term consequences of walking away may be even more painful than sticking with the status quo. That doesn’t, of course, justify what goes on in some households, but in watching characters who are fed up of being fed up, I couldn’t help but be moved by their plight in this rather intense and thoughtful production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Bess and Hannah are waiting. Sleeping rough each night on the streets of London they’re hoping for help to arrive, for a house to become available and for life to change, but they’ve been waiting a long time. As the nights once again start to get colder and nothing appears to be changing, their patience in the system and their faith it’ll all come right is all they have left. Until, that is, they meet Caz, a young woman new to the life of the hidden homeless. She isn’t content to wait quietly and ask nicely for spare change, she’s far more interested in taking what she needs and not waiting for help to come. As Hannah and Bess get drawn further into this new way of thinking they discover a power in their position that opens up a world change.

Creative Team
Writer: Oli Forsyth
Director: Sam Carrack
Producer: Smoke & Oakum Theatre

Madelaine McMahon as Caz
Helen Belbin as Bess
Isaura Barbé-Brown as Hannah
Andy McLeod as Ebi

Venue: The Vaults, Leake Street, SE1 7NN
Dates: 1st-5th March
Time: 20:00 (1hr 15)

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