Class Angst at the Nuffield: A Review of ‘Alchemy In The UK’

Posted on November 14, 2011 by

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Edward Learman reviews ‘Alchemy In The UK’ written by Maggie Nevill which recently premiered at The Nuffield Theatre in Highfield, and talks unemployment, class and life after graduating from university

A fortnight ago I was fortunate to attend the last showing of Maggie Nevill’s recent play Alchemy In The UK directed by Peter Sandford and thought it was still worth writing some more praise. The story takes place in present day Southampton and explores the problems of unemployment through a chance encounter between two families from lower and middle class backgrounds. Inspiration for the play is featured on the poster; a graffiti by the controversial street artist Banksy that depicts a child holding a red balloon and which later comes to symbolise the play’s central theme and manifesto. True to life, the graffiti was reported to have mysteriously appeared on a wall in Bevois Valley in November 2010 while the artist was supposedly travelling to the Bestival on the Isle of Wight.

I felt it was both wonderful and disturbing to see that Nevill has taken inspiration from some of theatre’s most highly regarded playwrights and has transposed these so effectively to my hometown. The ones that came immediately to mind and also showed some obvious thematic resemblances were Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1948) and Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven (1978). These are two seminal works which explore the destructive impact of social and political changes occurring within the personal relationships of the protagonist. It shows elements of Greek Comedy/Tragedy in the portrayal of individuals who are helpless to prevent the psychological damage being inflicted on their subjective consciousness or the threat to their family’s wellbeing, to the extent that their grip on reality begins to collapse. In both stories the protagonists are left with no choice but to face the bitter truth that their convictions and livelihoods were based on hypocrisy. This represents both an existential crisis and moral indictment and, as with Pennies From Heaven and unlike Death of a Salesman, all politics aside Alchemy In The UK gives hope to its characters and shows that redemption for the soul exists through Art, creativity, music and friendship.

The play shows the contrasting lives of two families and the separate generations as they face the dismal prospect of redundancy after the government’s recent budget cuts. Nevill enjoys parodying the middle class anxieties of its characters as their comfortable lives are thrown into chaos and are forced to re-evaluate their own circumstances. The drama takes place at a fictional recycling facility on the outskirts of the city that is illegitimately managed by a retiring working class father ‘Jack Shit’ (Geoffrey Freshwater) and his son Kellogg aka ‘Rooster’ (Paul Wyett), a greying punk poet. It is here that the men take pride in salvaging and restoring products left on the rubbish heap and where they perform their ‘alchemy’; the magical act of turning discarded objects into gold! The stage uses a striking piece of set design as a large skip has been erected (designer Juliet Shillingford) and used as a platform for characters to walk on for different scenes. The skip is the location where most of the drama unfolds and acts as the catalyst in the scenes where family visit the two men and exchange stories. This huge metal container which the two men appear to inhabit is overflowing with household junk, televisions (in one scene there is a hilarious Dennis Potter-style pastiche of the The Weakest Link) and even a library thrown out by the council.

Brian (John Bowler) is a middle-class family man who has just been made redundant from his managerial position with Southampton City Council. In a monologue he talks hysterically of his frustration with applications forms, pointless interviews and condescending Job Centre Advisors. Here Nevill manages to satirize the British attitude towards work in our modern age; where no job too good when you can survive an isolated and humiliating existence signing on at the Jobcentre. Brian’s problem is that he is a middle-aged professional who wants a job but because of his demographic and financial commitments he is either overqualified or inexperienced for the majority of jobs available. Nevill creates a grim parody where the dad speaks obsessively about his method of completing an application form for a cash-and-carry job at a hairdresser’s, and the surgical precision he uses to answer every box; one must be a leader but also a team player, strong but subservient, clever but stupid etc. It is important to emphasise that the play is a satirical comedy, and I felt relieved to finally see some jokes about the debilitating feeling of life spent on the dole.

There is a comic rescue scene where Brian (a self-loathing figure comparable to the suburban dentist from the BBC series My Family), is persuaded to climb off a ladder in a suicide attempt hanging over Jack’s skip. Jack speaks philosophically about his life, a man slowly dying from cancer, and the upshots of no longer needing to worry about an unhappy job. That unemployment can be seen as a chance to re-invent oneself and to pursue a childhood dream but that more importantly life should be about making the most of things. I respect such a noble sentiment, and Nevill draws attention to the modern family’s unhealthy appetite for consumer goods, narcissism and luxuries. The dialogue scenes where the two men share their plight and display a yearning for recognition seem contrived to me but provided an awkward sense of composure and mutual respect between the pair.

However, the ‘those-with’ and ‘those-without’ are sparsely represented in the class divide between the two families. Nevill is not attempting to make a statement about social mobility or explore the sense of class-culture as in a Mike Leigh film since there is little sense of the inequality or political status between the two families. It is apparent that the only threat to Brian’s family is a purely facile one that is more related to their own individual roles and self-image. There is a comic scene where Brian’s redundancy results in a loss of sexual performance and failure to arouse any interest from his overworked wife Claire (Julia Righton). In another scene their teenage daughter Tiff (Eleanor Yates) realizes that her desire for a new car is completely superficial but that somehow not having one would leave her world strangely incomplete. In contrast, Jack’s son Rooster, a student from the Bristol arts college where Banksy attended, never had the financial support of his family and reminisces on the camaraderie he felt among his peers during the unemployment of the 1980s. In a monologue he describes with nostalgia the youthful disregard for authority but shows a faint regret when he compares his present situation to his friends who took careers, bought mortgages and grew up. He represents a man of that era, sadly lost and forgotten, who kicked against the government’s broken machine but discovered a utopia through punk music. Today this exists as a subculture that is still alive and active among a growing population of unemployed graduates, young people and workers of all ages and backgrounds.

Since Graduating, I have after two long years been trying amongst the plethora of steadily increasing unemployed graduates to build a career and been forced to take any poorly paid temporary jobs offered by malevolent recruitment agencies simply to support myself, reduce my debts and break the monotony. This experience of working in restaurants and warehouses has shown me the real direction that the working life amongst the lower classes and unskilled workers is headed as the government’s policy on education and unemployment becomes implemented. The gap between the rich and poor is widening like a silent but impending avalanche. I think it’s important to mention that my experience of being unemployed (partly motivated by my own concerted effort to avoid a career as a teacher or insurance) has been an illuminating one that has taught me to understand hard work and humility. At times I have enjoyed indulging myself by pretending to be something which I am not: a benign and bourgeoisie author on a journey across the human zoo, a lá Joyce, Kerouac or Orwell. However, I must admit that cleaning toilets has rarely felt either idyllic or uplifting, and though I have met many interesting people along the way (I enjoy saying I got to make coffee for The Strokes when they headlined the IOW Festival 2009) much like the working class outsiders Jack Shit and Rooster, in real life their counterparts are far less brimming with romanticised aphorism and existential poetry. In fact there are strong feelings of anger, shame and unhappiness. I think perhaps I could be the one who is mistaken. After all, I am from a lower income background, and even though I was fortunate to go to University and study a subject I enjoyed I’m disappointed to find that it hasn’t helped me to achieve the media career I wanted. Despite this, I still see myself as an educated member of the middle class because I have a degree in literature. In truth, I remain an outsider in a status driven society, and who would rather avoid this reality by escaping into novels and poetry. I can identify with the characters in the play, particularly Rooster, who conveys a sense of spirit that others choose to feel enamoured with or sneer at; a cliché and a rare bird.

For some of us, University life and unemployment has shown similar notions of disillusionment on both ends of the spectrum. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t work hard enough, or didn’t choose to study something useful, or maybe because I was young and naive, but I have sensed in myself and others a unanimous detestation for the ‘social climber’, a common stigma. In many instances my efforts (or conceits) have generally been received with hostility and contempt and not the respect of my peers (or factory workers) for any achievement, this might just be because there are simply too many of us at university these days. Bitterly, I wonder what effect the Tory government’s hike in University fees will have. Surely this rise on tuition fees to £9,000 per year will mean student funds will increase in correlation, though as Tiff and her mother testify during one scene, there is worry whether students from middle income backgrounds will continue to afford their own cars, club nights, skiing holidays, student discounts on Iphones and Topshop.

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Posted in: Comment, Culture, Theatre