Blame @ Arcola Theatre, London

cast list
Nicholas Beveney
Lindsey Coulson
Andrew Paul
Katie Wimpenny
Sandra Yaw

directed by
Deborah Bruce
It seems there’s nothing quite so killingly funny as the British working class. Dear me, isn’t it hilarious that Vicky Pollard hasn’t the style to shop at Boden, or the wit to lay off the fags when she’s pregnant! What about that Royle family eh? All booze and benefits, but what cheeky Northern charm! What’s more, apparently the ASBO-worthy terrier-breeding classes are to blame for the majority of society’s ills: low birth weight babies, binge drinking, obesity, a disinclination to read media studies at Warwick. Heavens, haven’t these people the sense to take yoga classes and get their organic vegetable boxes delivered from Abel & Cole?

Blame, a collaboration between writer Beatrix Campbell and social worker Judith Jones, wonders how it’s happened that where once we would have blamed those in power for cracks in the social foundations, we’ve now shifted the burden (and the satire) to those with the least power to change themselves or anything else.

Mandy, resentful at having lost her cleaning job to cheaper Polish immigrants, is celebrating her birthday. The door to her council flat is broken, her ex-boyfriend is a petty gangster, and her daughter Laikeisha wishes she could live anywhere but there. She’s sharing her home with people who need shelter, but none of them can give Laikeisha any of the support she needs. Every morning Mandy’s alcoholic brother comes from the hostel and makes the girl porridge before school: it’s about as much parenting as she gets. The morning after the party (just a few bottles of White Lightning and something from Perfect Chicken, Mandy points out in disgust) Laikeisha is missing.

Baldly put, you’d think it would be no trouble to apportion blame, but the play crafts a careful balance: no-one’s at fault, and everyone’s guilty. Characters manage to show vice and tenderness at a stroke: Dwayne, hanging out at Mandy’s flat, carefully removes a splinter from the girl’s hand (I could’ve been a doctor!), offers to help her with her homework (I could’ve been a teacher!), then cuts up a block of crack (I could’ve been a pharmacist!) and encourages Laikeisha to practice her maths as he works out his profits. Mandy is shown raging at her daughter and getting her crack pipe out from under the bed, but it’s made clear that she once took great pride in her work and has never refused help to a friend.

Rather against my expectations, the dialogue rang startlingly true to anyone who’s hung around bus stops in Haringey or Hackney late at night. The actors take it up with gusto, and rage about the stage talking naturalistically over each other. Lindsay Coulson as Mandy manages to be both wholly deserving of a kick and wrenchingly vulnerable, and Andrew Paul as her holy fool of a brother is poignantly loving. As Laikeisha, the play’s emotional centre, Callie Ward holds her own against a faultless cast, and is both endearing and spikily angry with her mother. There were one or two moments when inflated prose seeps into the dialogue, but that aside the realism recalls Cathy Come Home, the benchmark for plays with a social conscience.

I wondered if this play is really about poverty. In essence Mandy’s life hardly differs from those lived in Islington or Crouch End. She worries about her home, frets about work, can’t find the form her daughter needs to take to school. She can’t do anything without her three morning cigarettes: I know people who can’t function without a soya latte. She does a little crack on her birthday: not so different from chopping out a line of coke on a glass-topped table from the Pier. The difference isn’t moral one, it’s financial: Mandy’s foolish and tired and weak and defeated like we all are, or might be but she hasn’t any money to cushion her fall. It’s more than a little depressing to wonder whether we don’t have a classless society, only one that separates one class from another over a high barrier of pounds and pence.

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