Street Life play shines a light on homeless in Norwich
Vulnerable adults who struggle with homelessness and mental health issues in Norfolk had been interviewed and a play was written and performed by local actors as part of Norwich Theatre Royal's Creative Matters season.
Review by Mark Sims
Last Wednesday 27th and Thursday 28th February, the play 'Street Life', by James McDermott, was shown at the Theatre Royal's Stage Two venue, as part of the Creative Matters – Living With Homelessness season. Stories had been sourced from interviews with vulnerable adults who had struggled with homelessness and/or mental health issues in Norfolk. These formed McDermott's script and were performed 'verbatim' by local actors.
This was my first verbatim play and, despite my prior concern about whether I could focus on a succession of monologues, I was impressed. A good script and direction interwove the characters and their stories, as well as minimal props, costume changes and unexpected musical interludes, also helping to create a fluid narrative. The song extracts set the tone (a good start involved the 'audience members' singing the first tune turning out to be the actors themselves, who then made their way to the stage) An altered 'You're The One That I Want' from Grease, however, felt like a distraction, rather than a totally necessary segue like the other snippets.
The show's verbatim nature created some nice verbal touches, when the original storytellers had mentioned the actual play and this was retained in dialogue.
At 90 minutes, Street Life tells a lot of stories, which began to blend together for me after a while. It took perseverance to listen to so many raw, downbeat anecdotes with similar elements, despite some welcome funny bits. At about one hour, though, I felt like the play had made its point that life is hard but, with the right help and perseverance, it is possible to find one's way again. 'You gotta pick yaself up and move on, 'aven't ya?' One character says, of life's hard knocks. 'No good stayin' down...'Another overall theme might be that accepting oneself as one is, is one goal we can all aspire to. This was illustrated by a character whose mental health problems had contributed to her homelessness and addictions, yet she had learned to accept herself more and judge others less. Another character didn't advocate finding oneself, however, as one might dislike what one found.
The stories will be familiar to those who have worked with the homeless and are, hopefully, far worse than any of us have experienced or may ever have to. The characters are not impossible to identify with. It has been said (although not in the play), that we're all only two payslips away from homelessness.
Some people may think that beggars only spend money they are given on booze and drugs, which is not ignored by the play. It is easy to think that buying a Big Issue is preferable but there's a story here of a seller using their earnings to fund their heroine addiction. Giving money to a beggar, or buying an Issue feels good but is as much of a quick fix as drugs and alcohol can be, although surely less harmful. The solution(s) to the problem of homelessness is not an easy one. Then again, just because some homeless people spend their money on illegal substances, does not mean that they all do. Throwing money at the problem will not completely solve it. As one character has it, 'it's not money that changes the world, it's ideas.' Whilst money surely helps ideas become a reality, presenting vulnerable people's stories in this way is a good one that I hope inspires more good ideas.
It is a shame that Street Life only had two public performances (so far), as it would be good for more people to see it and be challenged by its stories. For people considering a career in working with the homeless, it will give them a good idea of what awaits them and for others, they will hopefully be inspired to (as one character hopes) at least acknowledge street beggars, maybe even buy them a coffee and chat to them?
Photo courtesy of The Theatre Royal, Norwich