Chris Dunkley's new play at the Finborough Theatre contains effective moments, but doesn't come together as a whole, says Ben Aitken
The Finborough has garnered awards for its programming of theatre with socio-political intent, and rightly so; but Chris Dunkley's The Precariat, which offers a multi-media response to the London riots of 2011, and the tangle of issues such revolts throw up, would have worked better if had focused squarely on the modest domestic drama that underpins it.
Fifteen-year-old Fin is an unusual man of the house. In between school and shifts at a drive-through burger-joint, Fin has the double burden of keeping his mother Bethan on an even keel and his younger brother Leo out of the clutches of gang-lynchpin Balthazar. On the latter front he achieves a pyric victory (he is interred after saving his brother the job of stabbing a man); and on the former no victory at all. Alas, this ain't the feel-good play of the summer.
There are certainly moments of good writing and acting throughout. As Bethan's latest bunk-up Tim, Ben Mars offers a joyous Dr Evil flourish (in short, by elongating the word evil in a nasally tone); and as Fin's estranged father Ryan, David Hayler displays inch-perfect timing and tone when he applauds his son's historical reference to Florence Nightingale.
Scott Chambers as Fin certainly does a good job capturing the neurotic vulnerability of a troubled fifteen-year-old, but unfortunately a great deal of what he says is frankly indecipherable, which is fine if you're predisposed to frustrating obliquities, but trying if you're not.
But what nagged me more than anything was the feeling that the arterial narrative – a more or less straightforward kitchen-sink drama – was being used as a means to exhibit a loose scattering of cod-philosophical, pop-political tidbits. At one point or another in the story (it didn't seem to matter when) various characters chuck in their take on means testing, the Occupy movement, how the Great Depression precipitated WWII, and the commodification of education.
All of the play's aspects – the sex-sketch, the harangues, the news coverage, the opera music set to footage of a chicken – are effective and affective in isolation, but brought together they make a testing whole.
Dunkley also offers a very crude characterization of what might be called the benefit class. Bethan, it is shown, only wants to reconcile son with father so she can score a bonk. Ryan, as a gambling racist thieving sexist alcoholic benefit cheat, might well have been conceived in the folds of a Murdoch tabloid. At one point, Fin accuses his mother of parroting the platitudes of Jeremy Kyle, yet one is apt to feel that it is Dunkley himself that is most in thrall to that particular show.
Towards the end of the play, Fin describes how Leo, in homage to the rapper Jay-Z (whose Hackney concert Leo cannot afford to attend) has self-tattooed the letter Z onto his arm. Fin's somber recounting of his brother's self-harm somehow points to the play's ambition more broadly: to show that poverty - of means, opportunity and belief - causes self-destruction.
It is a laudable ambition, but one that, on this occasion, is handicapped by a sense of authorial over-reaching and directorial heavy-handedness.
- Ben Aitken