In 1979, just before Thatcher came into power, almost half of Britain’s population lived in homes provided by the state. Now it’s just 8%. With the mass sale of council houses, the explosion of the rental market and dramatic increases in buying and rental costs, social housing has become one of the most serious issues affecting Britain’s poorest.
Homelessness levels are higher than they’ve been since the 1930s, and there are currently 1.8 million people on the social housing waiting list.
Serious though the problems are – there’s little mainstream media coverage of these issues, and even less in the arts.
LUNG Theatre’s E15 (in common with a bunch of fringe shows commissioned by the Camden People’s Theatre last year) tries to do something about this.
It tells the story of a group of 29 mums who in 2012 were threatened with eviction from their homes in Stratford. Many were suddenly told that they were to be relocated to new estates miles away from London, where most of them had spent their entire lives.
E15 is a play about how these mothers became radicalised. It describes their reactions to the news, and how it drew them to collaborate with a group of seasoned social justice campaigners.
We follow the mums as they stage their first occupy protest, as they ambush public events hosted by the local Mayor and as they develop their Twitter fanbase.
Matt Woodhead’s production has real heart. It feels angry, but also full of warmth and affection for the communities that are being torn apart.
The six performers are brilliant: emotionally invested in the issues, full of anarchic energy, and refusing to sentimentalise or romanticise the key figures within the movement who they represent.
Undoubtedly the play’s a bit didactic. It doesn’t really offer an account of Newham council’s struggles in a climate of austerity, and it doesn’t probe too deeply into the question of why social housing should be considered a right. In this sense it doesn’t do a lot to win over people who are less convinced by Focus E15’s rhetoric (people who though maybe wrong, should still be taken into account…).
And yet E15 has such a committed and vital energy that it overcomes these issues, and would I think win over most audiences.
The story of these mothers is one of the most important stories that can be told in the present climate. Not just because it explores how communities have been torn apart by austerity culture, the vested interests of property developers and the blithe indifference of local councils – but also because it’s about the politicisation of the social demographic most affected by such issues, and yet whose voice is troublingly absent from most public debate.
E15 is the most important play I’ve seen at this year’s fringe.