Five months after they were first performed at Southwark Playhouse (and simultaneously across the country), the eight short plays that make up Theatre Uncut at the Traverse still have the power to surprise, if not quite shock. The far from silly news season has offered shocks enough this summer.
Written in March by some of British theatre’s strongest voices in response to (and protest against) the coalition cuts, the results are rough and these performances still essentially readings. But despite their varied formats and styles, the plays all function as theatre of the absurd. That is to say, painting the normal as absurd or the absurd as normal to highlight the twisted logic of the government's tactics.
Dennis Kelly’s Things That Make No Sense is overtly surreal, featuring two inspectors pinning down a man for a crime committed while he was out of the country. Their unspeak smacks of 1984, but this is 2011 as the throwaway “we’re all in this together” reminds us. Meanwhile, Mark Ravenhill’s ghost story, A Bigger Banner, engineers the meeting of an optimist of the Orwellian 1940s and a contemporary student protester taking part in a university sit-in. Which one is the ghost is left unclear.
There’s nothing supernatural about Jack Thorne’s Whiff Whaff or Lucy Kirkwood’s Housekeeping but their suburban settings only amplify the nonsense justifications for the cuts pedded to the man or woman on the street, as when Kirkwood’s protagonist is forced to (literally) sell her granny. Anders Lustgarten and David Grieg issue more direct calls-to-arms. The Fat Man is a lesson in economics from the school of ‘you couldn’t make this shit up’, while mini-drama Fragile casts the audience as a mental health worker whose out-patient turns up threatening to set fire to himself. “What are you going to about it?” the challenge. It’s no coincidence this play is kept till last.
Most effecting however are the two monologues, Open Heart Surgery by Laura Lomas, which simply and unashamedly employs the metaphor of ripping out the heart of a patient who wasn’t ill in the first place, and Clare Brennan’s Hi Vis, a tragicomedy complete with its own clown. Or rather a mother of a disabled child in care who has to dress up as a clown so that her daughter doesn’t recognise her and get unduly upset (the staff can’t cope).
The coalition might be hoping we acclimatise to the cuts, that over time the pain will dull to an ache we can bear without complaint. Rough tool that it is, Theatre Uncut will go on unpicking the scabs to ensure this doesn't happen.