‘This is not crime. This is not war. This is business,’ declares Victor at the start of Steve Waters’ Fast Labour.
Victor, played by Craig Kelly, is a Ukrainian who owned his own factory until the mafia destroyed it. He has since fled to the UK and, being an illegal worker, has been paid peanuts for menial jobs: gutting fish and picking carrots.
Waters’ play tells the story of a man who is prepared to play the game, and suffer humiliation in the short-term, to ensure he comes out on top in the end. By agreeing to act as a recruiter of cheap Eastern European labour for ‘boss’, Mr Grimmer, Victor covertly establishes his own rival business. He is helped by the Russian, Alexei, and Lithuanian, Andrius, who also have their axes to grind, and also by Anita, a Scottish personnel professional who is initially eager to stop the exploitation of workers.
Ian Brown’s production contrasts the Russian and English dialogues to good dramatic effect. When the Eastern Europeans speak amongst themselves they do so in English, but with no obvious accent. But, whenever an English character appears, the Eastern Europeans adopt strong accents to show they are conversing in a language not of their own. Despite reminding me a little of Allo, Allo, this worked rather well in highlighting the barriers that language – and the lack of a shared tongue, the lack of understanding – can create between people.
Fast Labour is very much a play of two halves. The first two acts are relatively straight forward, charting Victor’s rise. At this stage we learn little about Alexei and Andrius, they merely seem bitter at their own exploitation and are only too willing to aid Victor. By cutting straight from the scene in which Victor persuades Anita to help with his plan, to one where the business is in full swing, we miss out on understanding what a real struggle it must have been for Victor to have achieved what he did.
The main interest therefore lies in the relationship between Victor and Anita, sustained by superb performances from Kelly and Kirsty Stuart. Though Victor feels it safer to keep Anita in the dark over the exploitation he is responsible for, Anita says she is aware of it but accepts that if it wasn’t Victor doing it, it would be someone else.
If, however, the overall impression left by the first half is that Victor is a man willing to exploit as much as he has been exploited, the play’s third act changes all this. Stylistically too it could not be more different. Whilst the first half is all about movement, with numerous scene changes conveyed via projected images of a harbour, a motorway and Ely Cathedral, after the interval the action takes place entirely in a half-built house.
The arrival of Victor’s wife, Tanya, whom Anita knows nothing about, rocks the boat, but so too do the views she presents. She begs Victor to return home, arguing that that they can prosper if only they are prepared to follow the ‘rules of the game’. It is a strategy of ‘put yourself first and damn the rest’ as much as any other. Similarly, Andrius and Alexei come into their own as characters, with Andrius deciding to desert Victor and go into business with Grimmer because it suits him best.
However, when news reaches Victor of the death of a worker, he turns the accusation of ruthlessness on Anita. He points out that she, as much as anyone in England, enjoys the products of cheap labour, and yet supposedly abhors its existence. He even suggests that Anita is the one denying Eastern Europeans hope by not allowing them to work here legally. Through some partially redeeming final actions, we see Victor as a man for whom business is not, in fact, all. Indeed, though no-one emerges looking good, Victor, rather ironically, comes out looking better than most.
Towards the end of the play I found myself thinking of Alan Rickman’s My Name is Rachel Corrie. In that, the cruel death of a highly moral girl saw half the audience leave the auditorium on a mission to change the world (even if most had forgotten this by the morning). I don’t think Fast Labour was inspirational in quite this way, but this actually says something about the brilliance of the writing. Waters has captured so astutely the exploitation that our society rests upon that we sadly take it as a social norm, and feel little urge to challenge it.