Review: What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors at the King’s Head Theatre

Ask pretty much anyone, and if we’re really honest we’ll probably admit to some preconceived ideas about the causes of homelessness. We might mention drugs, alcohol, mental illness, criminal records, domestic abuse… All problems we don’t – and assume never will – face ourselves.

It’s not entirely our fault; the media plays a significant role in shaping society’s view of homelessness, and the more horrors someone has been through on the way to losing their home, the more sympathetic – and therefore interesting – their story. But it also places the homeless at even more of a distance from those of us lucky enough to have a roof over our heads and a nice warm bed to go home to. We may shake our heads at the sadness of the story; we may even buy someone a coffee or make a donation to a homelessness charity – but then we go on our way, safe in the knowledge theirs isn’t a problem we’ll ever face ourselves.

Photo credit: Caz Dyer

The truth is, though, homelessness isn’t necessarily the result of a dramatic crisis; sometimes it’s simply the product of a wrong move here or there. Molly, the central character in What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors, doesn’t quite know how she ended up homeless; she didn’t even fully register that she was for a good two weeks after being evicted. Maybe it’s because she was bullied at school. Or because she didn’t go out with that guy from her class. Maybe because her dad left, or her mum died, or she decided not to go to uni. Maybe it’s because of a combination of these, or something else entirely.

Molly’s played by Emma Bentley, who wrote the show along with Calum Finlay, and whose engaging performance quickly wins us over as she attempts to make sense of where she went wrong. Articulate, funny and resilient, Molly’s completely honest about her own lapses of judgment and the slow disintegration of her life – even before she ends up on the street in a thunderstorm, messaging a random guy on Tinder just to have somewhere to stay the night. While not solely a victim of circumstance, she also doesn’t do anything obviously wrong; she’s not a drug addict, or a criminal – she’s just like anyone else, and this relatability is both enjoyable and rather unsettling.

The Tinder scene is just one reference to technology in a show that makes frequent use of it. Images from Molly’s phone are projected on to a sheet at the back of Rasa Selemonavičiūtė’s set, and there’s inventive use made of a webcam to take us on a tour of the home that exists now only as a memory. Katharina Reinthaller’s production also introduces several other characters to the story through the use of audio clips, with which Molly interacts throughout the play. It’s an ambitious project, and not without an element of risk, but it pays off; the inclusion of these extra characters helps to build up a more complete picture of Molly’s life and relationships, and also emphasises her loneliness once all those voices fall silent.

Photo credit: Caz Dyer

Developed with the benefit of Emma Bentley’s volunteering experience at St Mungo’s, the play also has a feeling of authenticity, particularly when Molly starts sharing details about her current state of “purgatory”, as she waits to find out if she’ll get permanent housing or end up back on the street. In a series of short scenes, we also learn about the lengthy, repetitive bureaucratic process she had to go through just to get temporary accommodation. With her fate out of her hands, all she can do is wait and hope for the best.

What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors clearly aims to make us think, but resists the temptation to preach or tell us what to do. Instead, by sharing one person’s story, the show invites us to process for ourselves the uncomfortable home truth at its heart: but for a different decision somewhere along the road, Molly could have been – and could still be – any one of us.

Catch What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors at Playbox Theatre, Warwick, on 16th March and at Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford Playhouse, on 19th and 20th April.

Interview: Emma Bentley, What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors

Emma Bentley is co-artistic director of Joue le Genre, an emerging theatre company based in London and Lille. Her last show, one-woman play To She Or Not To She, addressed gender equality within the theatre; her latest project, What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors, addresses a different but equally weighty topic: homelessness. Following a successful run in Edinburgh last summer, in February the show embarks on a spring tour that will take it to venues including Yvonne Arnaud Theatre’s Mill Studio and the King’s Head in Islington.

Closed Doors is about Molly Brentwood, a young woman who is feisty and argumentative and gets on better with boys than girls,” explains Emma, who plays Molly. “We meet her in her bedroom in a homeless hostel, and she tells us about all the moments that she thinks might have led her to that point. That’s what she’s trying to figure out, anyway.”

 

The play, written by Calum Finlay, began life as a small scratch piece for Pleasance in June 2016. “Calum and I wanted to tell the story of how homelessness can happen to anyone – although I’m very cautious about using the word ‘homeless’ when talking about the show, because I think people get a very specific vision of the type of scenes it’s going to explore,” says Emma. “So that’s why it was important to show it from the perspective of a young woman. To break that expectation. Plus because that makes me happy as an artist and a feminist to make work about women. And women in situations that we don’t get to see very often on stage – not being glamorous, not in a relationship, from a working class background.

“Since I moved to London, homelessness has been on the forefront of my brain and I would always try to learn more about people’s stories. Then in 2016 I started volunteering at St Mungo’s. The amazing work they do to give people a home inspires me a lot. People that come and see the play will probably have an interest in the homelessness sector, but if they’ve been dragged along and they don’t, I hope that it allows them to empathise more with people living on the streets. The way that people who beg or sleep rough are treated is horrendous and people don’t realise you don’t have to give money every time – just say ‘Sorry I don’t have anything,’ instead of just ignoring them or getting angry. People complain that they’ll just spend it on drugs when they don’t know the first thing about being an addict; it makes me really angry. Although I think part of it is fear as well.”

Emma wrote a first draft of the script, which was staged at Pleasance in February 2017. “Then after that Calum said, ‘I’ve got this idea for the script,’ and he sent me the first couple of pages in this new style – a lot more lyrical, weird and mysterious and I said ‘I love it, do it to the whole thing please.’ So he did and it’s a beautiful, haunting script.

“We’ve worked with Anna Beecher on the dramaturgy of the piece, and for Edinburgh Anna Souter did our set design. For this spring tour of the show I’m working with Katharina Reinthaller, who directed me in To She Or Not To She for the Lyric Hammersmith, and a designer she works with called Rasa Selemonavičiūtė. It’s fantastic to work with Katharina again because we have a shared language, and I think Calum and I both knew that we needed someone’s fresh perspective on the script. Plus Calum is in Mary Stuart at the mo so he’s a bit busy!”

Closed Doors has been significantly re-worked since Emma last performed it in Edinburgh in 2017 – though she admits it can be difficult to make big changes to material she’s personally invested in: “When you change things you think, ‘Hold on wait, was there anything wrong with it in the first place? I can’t even remember now’, and that’s why it’s useful to work with a bigger team.

“We started with the script. We didn’t have a video of the show post Edinburgh so we couldn’t look back on it. I’d like to say we went on gut feelings. We met up and talked a lot about the main framing device, which now we’ve completely changed. As it’s such a tech heavy show this framing device needed to be simplified so that the complexity could lie in the language and images on stage.”

With this new tour, Emma’s looking forward to meeting more audiences, hopefully sharing the play with some young people who have or are experiencing homelessness themselves, and hearing what they think about it. “In Edinburgh, quite a lot of people who I spoke to after the show thought it was about me, which I guess is a massive compliment – it was also sad though as they looked worried about saying goodbye at the end. The best response though was that some teenagers were heard on a bus in Edinburgh talking about the show and about what they could do individually to help people who are homeless.

“The dream would be if someone came after seeing the show on tour and said something like, ‘I never really thought about how it actually could happen to someone – I thought they were just lazy, and now I realise they’ve just taken a few wrong turns.’

“Maybe the show will even help people from ever getting into a situation like Molly’s themselves. Through making the show, I’ve learnt what to do if I were to ever be in that position; if I didn’t have a supportive group of family and friends to help me, then I would know where to look for help. It’s useful information. We’re all only a few steps away from homelessness, especially in the theatre industry. Who knows if it might help someone spot the signs, before they or a friend become close to sleeping rough.”

What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors opens at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, on 9th February. For full tour dates and venues, visit the Joue le Genre website.