Skelmersdale, oh Skelmersdale. The tired old new town is fast becoming a symbol of Left Behind Britain. After Michael McLean's Years of Sunlight, which tied a disintegrating friendship to a crumbling community, spoken word artist Jackie Hagan takes us back to Skem in this slim two-hander.
Susie returns to Skem after 10 years away, first university then off into the world. She's known as Dent – as in Dictionary Corner – but it's clear things haven't gone as planned. Hagan never spells it out, but you strongly suspect the disability support that helped her find her feet has given way under austerity.
Or is it that she didn't fit in: too short for Skelmersdale, too Skem for anywhere else. Either way, her world has contracted. Back home. Back to her rangy mate Shaun, and his suspiciously good knowledge of prescription drugs. Back to the way things were in Skelmersdale.
Same old Skem! Unlike London or Manchester, cities that follow fashions and fads like hounds hunt foxes, Skem stays still. Stagnant, yes, but steadfast too; old reliable Skelmersdale. This is a place where the same faces hang around the same spots, where concrete buildings never change, where even nicknames stick around for decades. Integral Paul? He used the word at school once. Dufflecoat Dave's been in the same coat for years.
As Hagan portrays it, this onetime New Town, a concrete utopia when it was built, has failed to seed new life. If it's fallen out of time, Hagan argues that it might as well be another planet, and Bethany Wells' set, with its white concrete benches, looks like a lunar landscape.
That makes Dent's trip to the pharmacy a moonwalk – every small step becomes a giant leap. She's in excruciating pain, walking like an arthritic pensioner, with no pain relief in sight. Hagan makes you realise that each day's delay at the drugstore, every bureaucratic cock-up, costs her dear: another 24 hours of agony.
That's the play, pretty much: Susie and Shaun walk to the shops then walk back home, nattering, shooting the shit, chewing over their life choices and their lot. Rachel Denning and Reuben Johnson find a raggedy warmth to their back and forth, but director Amit Sharma, who wrung so much from stillness in The Solid Life of Sugar Water, distracts from it by having them clamber around Wells' assault course. It's a slight play to begin with. It needs focusing in.
Hagan's writing has some small fireworks displays, little bursts of spoken word sparkle. Every so often, it crackles into something defiant as Susie and Shaun take ownership of their status. "We dance on the off-beat," they say. "We're wonky shopping trolleys." But there's too little of that in a slight play that, like old Skem itself, fails to take off.
Cosmic Scallies runs at Northern Stage @ Summerhall until 26 August, 18.30, then transfers to the Manchester Royal Exchange, 27 September – 14 October.