Review by Sam Waite
Shaped by community workshops over several years, and with various London communities, Max Wilkinson’s new black comedy Union looks at gentrification and the erasure of what once distinguished a neighbourhood, through the eyes of one of the developers behind these changes. Whether progress is inherently good in every case, or whether changes made always qualify as progress, are questions raised by the work but never directly asked – Wilkinson isn’t here to force your viewpoint in one direction, but to show the journey his heroine takes.
Saskia has run away from an important meeting. Literally, as she darts across the stage of the Arcola Theatre in her matching Gymshark set, suddenly feeling compelled to run the lengthy route home alongside the Grand Union Canal. Much to the dismay of her posh-boy husband and the growing vitriol of her boss, Saskia seems unconcerned about how quickly she arrives home, and in no rush to sign the contract that will put their newest project into motion. As she goes, she narrates the changes she has helped to instigate across the city, and runs into various locals who have been shaped, one way or another, by these developments.
The sizeable cast of characters are all played by Andre Bullock and Sorcha Kennedy, a pair of fine actors who prove their dramatic and particularly their comic ranges. When given the opportunity to share scenes, such as their hilarious turn as two teenage would-be-hooligans who just want Saskia to buy them weed, they also show a great chemistry with both each other and with leading lady Dominique Tipper. Bullock is immediately hysterical as a man napping on a bench who Saskia inadvertently sits on and who introduces a nostalgic lens to the view of the area’s past, while Sorcha is a charming parody as the push husband, and carries much of the dramatic weight with his light, deceptively carefree work as a teenage best friend in flashback sequences.
A bare-bones production, changes in character are informed by the adding of different outer layers of clothing, and a single bench is periodically moved to be repurposed for another setting. This works well for the increasing realisation that any distinguishing factors of these neighbourhoods have been gradually stripped away, and Kit Hinchcliffe’s wardrobe choices make it immediately apparent the kind of character being portrayed – sometimes you can guess the character’s persona before they’re said even a word. Lighting designed by Martha Godfrey tells a story all its own at times, altered in hue and in brightness not always by story events or settings, but by Saskia’s fraught emotional state.
Tipper is wonderful in the lead role, giving Saskia’s initial raving about the marvellous changes she’s helped to make just the right air of inauthentic showboating. Whenever called on to defend the gentrification many of the people she meets complain about, this same fakeness creeps back into her delivery – we can tell before it dawns on her just how unsure Saskia is about this newest deal, and about these new developments creeping closer and closer to her childhood home. Saskia is essentially having an 80-minute-long panic attack before our eyes, constantly sliding into emotional peaks and valleys as she tries to understand just what drove her out of that meeting, and Tipper continuously strikes the right tone no matter what that tone may be.
Given the subject matter, the anguish of the protagonist, and the slow-building tragedy of the backstory, it would be easy to slip into dreariness and misery when drafting the script. Thankfully, Wilkinson manages to find moments of levity and humour right up until the end – the triumphant final twist, while admittedly schmaltzy and perhaps a touch too neat of a closure, helps to resolve overriding issues with a laugh and a small win for the good guys. The research done by Wilkinson, and the discussions carried out, have clearly paid off, and his understanding of just why people are resistant to the changes being made to their homes is clear throughout.
An understanding of tone and the balance of emotions also shows in the work of sound designer Julian Starr. Also providing original compositions, Starr has selected songs and musical pieces to represent the moments and the places Saskia enters. Catchy but monotonous elevator music fills a local corner shop, while classic pop fills her ears when beginning her defiant run. The original score is haunting in places, melancholy in others, and matches beautifully with the emotion-led lighting. Combined, the light and sound in this production become so essential that it’s hard to imagine the piece carrying the same power without them.
Wiebke Green helms the play as director for this debut run, and obviously gets that the winning nature of the text is largely due to its familiarity and human touches. While the performances are always clear in the intended emotion, there is nothing “stagey” (to use a word I always find odd to apply in this context) about their deliveries or inflections. Likewise, bold, unnatural gestures and displays of physicality are avoided, this being the story of an ordinary woman dealing with the ordinary difficulties brought on by a privileged but otherwise ordinary life. Whether Green’s decision, Wilkinson’s, or something agreed to collaboratively, the choice to keep Bullock and Kennedy always visible, and to utilise their vocalisations as part of Tipper’s performance, is masterful.
Unafraid though occasionally too vague about its subject matter – many of the real tragedies of dislodged working classes are skimmed over, understandable – and influenced by the words and stories of real people, Union leaves its audience thinking about the future of our city, even our world, and questioning what part they may play in it. Bolstered by its dynamic cast and a writer/director duo who aren’t afraid to let an audience draw their own conclusions about whether something is inherently evil, or simply not the best choice in all cases, this moving play makes a stunning debut.
Union plays at the Arcola Theatre until August 12th.
For tickets and information visit https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/union/
Photos by Lidia Crisafulli