Six Characters in Search of a Handout

An adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 absurdist piece, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Barrie Wheatley’s modernised version blends the source material’s meta-theatrical philosophising with sharp social critique of a generation of food banks and Twitter hate campaigns.

The way Wheatley has updated Pirandello’s original premise is stellar.

The play begins as a company of middle-class actors are interrupted mid-rehearsal by the arrival of six characters, eager to bring their story of living life on the margins to the stage, which is set in a food bank. Wheatley’s application of Pirandello’s absurdist piece to current social issues is inspired, and the updated premise asks a variety of new and probing questions. Is it ever possible for a company of privileged thespians to bring to life the struggles of the disadvantaged and the desperate? Can theatre be a serious social project, or can it only pay lip service to issues like poverty? “We have to look to the conventions of the stage,” insists the company’s director, as the characters complain about how the actors represent them. “That’s just a game,” complains one of the characters, and perhaps that’s all socially-conscious theatre can ever be.

The companies of actors and characters are perfectly distinguished: the character’s naturalism is just right and the actor’s attempts to recreate their troubled lives in a more theatrical manner is hilariously stagey. The play is all about representation, so it was a relief to see that the performances of the characters forced into using the food bank were always respectful. The understated way the characters narrated their tragic past is also well-done, although the emotion is always muted, making the show a piece for the head rather than the heart.

Things start to go a little awry with the arrival of Katie Hatekins (Katie Burgess), a thinly-veiled, fictionalised version of Katie Hopkins. Though sometimes accurately representing the kind of attacks launched on the desperate by the right-wing media, Hatekins is too much the pantomime villain, and ironed out the subtleties of the social commentary. It was much more interesting to see how the middle-class actors reacted to the working-class characters and struggled to relate to their experiences, but with Hatekins, it was just a question of waiting for the next horrible put-down. Shortly after Hatekins’ arrival, the play veers off down a much less serious path, enjoyably wacky at times, but not as strong as the incisive first half.

The play does have a few flaws, but the way Wheatley has updated Pirandello’s original premise is stellar. While not as moving as some of this year’s Fringe shows, Six Characters will force the theatrical-types who frequent the Fringe to ask some serious questions about their art.

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The Blurb

‘Comedy doesn't get much darker… Barrie Wheatley’s funny and thoughtful play – which sees a group of food bank users meeting a bunch of pretentious actors – is a glimpse of the realities of life on the breadline... a moving and sometimes troubling experience... sharp humour... strong performances' (Hull Daily Mail). In this new work, the differences between truth and illusion become hard to see and the play takes an unexpected turn with the arrival of a mysterious media celebrity who gets her just deserts!