The title of Leon Fleming’s new play could hardly be more appropriate, because watching it actually does feel like being kicked, if not in the sh*tter then somewhere equally painful. Fearless and brutal, the play forces us to confront two of our society’s most common and damaging assumptions – that anyone on benefits must be a work-shy scrounger, and that anyone who suffers with depression must be a malingerer – and establishes an unsurprising but often-forgotten link between poverty and mental health issues.
We first meet the two unnamed siblings, Her and Him, as kids – planning their futures with an optimism that becomes increasingly heartbreaking as we flash forward to how things have actually turned out. She’s now a single mother of two, while he’s struggling with depression and living in squalor. Neither has a job – he because he doesn’t feel able to work; she because someone needs to stay home and take care of their sick mum – and both ultimately find themselves at the mercy of a system that deals in check boxes and endless forms, rather than the many shades of grey that make up real human lives. Which is not to say Kicked in the Sh*tter is necessarily a political play – Fleming’s careful to make clear that the health and social care professionals are doing their best within a flawed system, and that’s as far as the criticism goes. This is a story about people, not politics.
In keeping with this, director Scott Le Crass (who previously collaborated with Fleming on the critically acclaimed Sid) keeps things simple. The set, designed by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust, is made up of large boxes that resemble dark concrete, and are manoeuvred into position by the actors to become a bed, sofa, table… Consequently, our focus remains on the characters, and particularly on the powerful performances given by Helen Budge and James Clay. In a series of short, punchy scenes that jump around in time and space, they show us the despair of a mother unable to provide tea for her kids, and the helplessness of a young man fighting not only his illness but also the assumptions of those who think he’s faking.
Between the two we see genuine affection, but also a constant battle as to who’s got it worse, resulting in a downward spiral from which there seems to be only one escape. As Scott Le Crass points out in his programme notes, this is not poverty porn; there’s no abuse of the system here, no smoking, drinking or fancy phones at the taxpayer’s expense – just two people genuinely struggling to survive against ever-increasing odds.
At the heart of the 75-minute play is a raw, honest account of mental illness, and the sobering realisation that it can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time – even those who think they’re holding it all together. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s actually a lot of humour in the play, a hopeful message that desperate times may reveal us to be capable of much more than we thought, along with an encouragement to share our struggles with those closest to us, rather than battling on alone.
It’s not necessary to read the programme notes from Leon Fleming and Scott Le Crass to understand this is a passion project; there’s an intensity to the writing and production that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. And for those of us who are able to put dinner on the table every night, it’s a wake-up call – a reminder of just how fortunate we are, but also of how unfairly we sometimes judge those who most need our help.
Kicked in the Sh*tter is at the Hope Theatre until 8th April.