Benefit, the new touring production by Cardboard Citizens, is a powerful and moving portrayal of life under the coalition government, and a damning indictment of the confusing bureaucracy and lack of empathy within the benefits system. Written by Sarah Woods, a performer, playwright and activist, and directed by the Cardboard Citizens Artistic Director and expert in Theatre of the Oppressed Adrian Jackson, Benefit is a play that seeks to explore the lives of three ‘job-seekers’ and the results this has on their lives. This play will tour various theatres around the UK, as well as homeless hostels, day centres, and prison, giving its audience the opportunity to discuss and engage with the many issues it raises.

The first half of the evening, the play itself, is very well executed. The set is striking: a white and red cube with cut out front and side panels, lit by white fluorescent strip lighting.

Cardboard Citizens is an organization that works with the homeless and vulnerably housed in order to provide a space for their stories to be told through theatre. The company has been working in a variety of settings, from prisons to hostels, for over 20 years, using actors who have experiences of homelessness in their productions. The group also provides workshops and training for individuals, along with accredited qualifications and the opportunity to actively take part and inspire the theatre the company creates.

The evening is split into two parts, a short play performed by four actors for one hour and, after a short interval, what they refer to as a debate, or an opportunity for the audience to discuss what they have just seen. This unique set-up stems from the company’s use and engagement with Forum Theatre. Developed by Brazilian practioner Augusto Boal, Forum Theatre attempts to break the traditional hierarchical construction of actor and audience in order to allow increased participation from those watching. Forum Theatre asks its audience to consider the play they have just seen and think about they could make it different, allowing the voices of the audience to be heard.

The first half of the evening, the play itself, is very well executed. The set is striking: a white and red cube with cut out front and side panels, lit by white fluorescent strip lighting. This makes the stage look and feel clinical, and the actors appear (more) vulnerable. The cube floor is bare, but as the play progresses the actors bring on more and more chairs. These accumulating chair, coupled with that harsh lighting, makes the stage resembles a disorganized waiting room, reflecting much of the content in the play; these characters, who have indeed spent time on the phone waiting, in job centres waiting, and in doctor’s surgeries waiting, exist in a space characterized by that very act. The lack of props, and the fluidity between contrasting settings suggests the underlying liminality within all of these characters lives; their whole lives have become waiting games, but for what, they aren’t sure.

The three stories the play tells interlink, with scenes repeating from differing perspectives, each time finally concluding in a scene set in a food-bank. Each story is powerful in its own way; Rosa, a young Chilean woman is repeatedly sanctioned by the job centre despite her best efforts; Craig, a security guard on a zero-hour contract, finds the uncertainty of his situation too much to bear, seeking solace in violent pornography, as opposed to his worried wife Chloe; and Patrick, dealing with anxiety and angst, finds the world more and difficult to comprehend, leading him to retreat from it. In each story, one actor takes the lead role, whilst the others play the supporting parts, announcing the setting and character they are playing to the audience. All of the actors give good, heartfelt performances, particularly the two women Emma Deegan and Carly-Jane Hutchinson.

There the final story was particularly effective. Anxious and ill Patrick is not only earnestly acted by Herman Stephens, but his scenes are also well-paced and tightly scripted. Patrick’s confusion with the world he lives in manifests itself in an inability to understand what people around him are saying. This emerges slowly, for him and the audience, as lines spoken by other actors gradually become more and more incomprehensible, filled with nonsense and misheard words. Snatches of sense quickly disappear amongst nonsense. This culminates in a scene in a CV writing workshop, where this nonsense becomes political, angry and directed straight at him. The interweaving stories and shared experiences of the characters are brought to the fore here, as Patrick’s lack of comprehension is shown as a wider problem that all the characters share: a disturbing separation from the structures that surround them, and an inability to understand the situation within which they are submerged.

The play is clearly incredibly well researched – the program gives a list of sources consulted – and we are assured by the facilitator and director that they are based on true situations. Sarah Woods has managed to create some real poignancy without sentimentalizing or exaggerating the drama. The power comes from the fact that what the audience sees on the stage is sourced directly from the news, from stories heard by the company, and experiences of the company itself; the production has done extraordinarily well to make sure that nothing is overplayed, and its simplicity and understatement is incredibly effective. I was very moved on several occasions.

Though I was dubious about the second half, once it starts the technique is actually very effectively, and on this occasion prompted many responses from the audience. A ‘joker’ or facilitator asks the audience questions about the play they have just seen, asking which of the stories the audience would like to replay. Then, with some prompting and encouragement, members of the audience discuss these scenes and suggest other ways that characters could behave. This is a refreshing and exciting part of the performance and I could see how this might be particularly useful and empowering for those who may be dealing with some of the issues brought out within the play. My only query was about how much thinking about the response of the individual worked with this particular play because the issues it is deals with are to do with bureaucracy and systems of power; surely asking the audience to think about the individual may not necessarily gel with the concerns of the first half?

However, I do not necessarily think that my issue with the appropriateness of the forum theatre in this case detracts from the quality and power of the overall performance. It was exciting and refreshing to see an interesting and politically charged type of performance, particularly one that encourages the empowerment of its audience. Cardboard Citizens are clearly doing important and valuable work, and Benefit will only boost their reputation for interesting, political and heartfelt theatre. 

Reviews by K D C Lewin

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The Blurb

English graduate Rosa is haunted by the history of her Chilean family, Craig suffers from a sex addiction that is destroying his relationship and Patrick is rendered near-speechless by his inability to understand the Kafkaesque world into which he is thrust seeking support. By telling the stories of these individual true-to-life struggles, Benefit looks at the impact of austerity and asks how we can best deal with the world we are now in.

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