Thursday 6 October 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: Know Your Rights

It’s not always possible to see every play. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 40: Judy Upton’s Know Your Rights (1998)

Judy Upton’s most famous play is Ashes and Sand (Royal Court, 1994). One of the most prominent plays to be attributed with the hindsight in-yer-face label, Upton’s play, focusing on a Brighton girl gang, explores a generation with little hope of a bright and prosperous future. What sticks out in that play is the anger of its lead characters. More than just shock tactics or an aesthetic, Ashes and Sand is a stinging play about the effects of a long and no doubt seemingly ceaseless Tory rule.

This short play premiered roughly a year after Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 but the promises of New Labour are not on display here. Jane and Bonnie live in the same block of flats. Jane is the nosy neighbour type whose husband is in a private care home which she struggles to afford. Bonnie is a single mum with a young child struggling to get by. Yet they are plunged into a legal dispute when Bonnie’s son gets in the way on the stairs leaving Jane to fall down them and injure herself, opening up the opportunity for her to try and get some money out of Bonnie. Taking the form of two interweaving split stage monologues, Know Your Rights sees two very different people’s shared welfare, money and job worries come to a head.

Neither of them fully realise the financial worries of the other. Bonnie (played by Noma Dumezweni in the original production at the Battersea Arts Centre) is on benefits but is forced into a job on the side at Safeway because they’ve been lowered slightly. When Jane finds out, Bonnie is fired and her benefits cut leaving her desperate for money and pushed into putting Jake into care for a few days whilst she decides somewhere else to live. If you’re using this play as a look into what the late nineties under Tony Blair was like, it paints an interesting depiction of New Labour Britain. Cassette tapes and since-shutdown supermarkets aside, there are problems with housing, healthcare and benefits. The Helping Hands centre is now a Dunkin’ Donuts, and a No Win No Fee injury claim culture seems part of a financial opportunism which leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It perhaps doesn’t quite have the same anger as Ashes and Sand, or at least it does but with less dramatic impact. Nor does it quite have the same imagination as some recent #ReadaPlayaWeek choices from 1990s’ fringe theatre.

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