Friday, April 24, 2015

'No Milk for the Foxes' at Camden People's Theatre, 23rd April 2015

Just when did the salt of the earth become the scum of the earth? That question, paraphrased from Owen Jones' excellent Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, powers No Milk for the Foxes. It's not accurate to say that working class voices are absent from the London stage (as the excellent Trainspotting, Marching on Together and Lardo prove), but, let's face it, these are the minority. 

This co-production, by new company Beats&Elements and the Camden People's Theatre kicks back against this. This is about zero hours contracts, financial insecurity, crushed ambitions, social snobbery and the death of working class dignity. Set over one night at a nondescript factory in the outer limits of London, we meet two security guards, Mark (Paul Cree) and Sparx (Conrad Murray), watching over the site. There's little of value to any would-be thieves, and so they sit in Beckettian limbo, stuck with each other.

As they count down the minutes until the shift is over they chat. We learn that this is Mark's first job in two years. He and his partner still live at his parent's house and with a child due very soon this job (crappy though it is) is a lifeline to an independent life and the start of the long road to freedom from debt. 

Sparx, the younger of the two, has fewer worries. He just wants to clock off, smoke a spliff and save up for some new trainers. He's caught in a no man's land between adolescence and adulthood. Though he can't see it himself, you see that he's slowly sinking into a quicksand of mediocrity, this 'stopgap job' a dangerous tedium that will eat up decades of your life if you're not careful.

That drama is melded with beatboxing musical numbers, the two performers rapping over each other's beats and loops. It's a curious and idiosyncratic choice; naturalistic drama rubbing up against the more fantastical music. Though the two talk at length; they're not to truly express their own feelings for fear of breaking the shell of uneasy matey masculinity. In the musical numbers though, their innermost paranoias, desires and frustrations bubble to the surface.

The best bits are the moments of genuine anger. There's a particularly affecting description of a City party that Mark is invited to. He's enjoying the food, the drink and the conversation -  taking pleasure in being accepted by these people as an apparent equal. Then someone makes a casually classist comment that cuts to the bone. The illusion shatters and his class status is underlined: he can fake it but will never truly belong. Later we see the vulnerability of life on a zero hours contract; the worker powerless and impotent against the whims of his boss.

This kind of exploitation was fought (and the worst instances curbed) over the course of the 20th century; workers unionising to protect their livelihood, dignity and future. But now, post Thatcher, Blair and Cameron, the power balance has once more shifted to the boss. Dancing to the tune of the free market, the worker is a pure unit of economic activity, working conditions and rights eroded on the basis that no matter how shitty a job or boss is, there'll be someone in dire enough straits to gobble it up.

It's a fine message for a play, this desperation leaching through the carefully coloured scenery and the performer's baleful gaze. But a right on message isn't the only thing you need for a piece of drama. Though there's occasional pathos, this is a touch too didactic; the two men often feeling like devices through which the writers' politics are explained - like characters from an educational film. Sparx in particular could use a bit of fleshing out, Murray replaying the same facial and physical tics over and over again.

This leads to a tangible slackness in the on stage chemistry. While their comic timing is adequate, the two don't bounce off one another as satisfyingly as you'd hope. It's hardly a show-stopping flaw, more something that should (and by all appearances can) be ironed out over the course of the run.

I liked No Milk for the Foxes, but then anything that speaks with clarity, anger and forthrightness about class issues is instantly in my good books. If it were married to a more rigorously constructed piece of theatre I'd be in hog's heaven. As it is I'll just settle for straightforward enjoyment.


No Milk For the Foxes is at the Camden People's Theatre until the 9th of May. Tickets here.

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