Tamsin works in an Amazon “fulfilment centre”. It’s precarious: contracted on a zero-hour basis, she lives her life in permanent fear that there will be no work for her the following day. Not that she finds any enjoyment in the experience of being a “packer”: as an Amazon employee her workload is closely monitored by a handset, she is constantly threatened with the prospect of losing her job if she gets three points, and it’s made clear to her that she isn’t trusted not to steal the products. It’s a total misery, basically – and that’s before the cardboard cuts and the blisters.
To make matters worse, Tamsin’s home life is tough. She lives alone with her brother Dean, who struggles with an obsessive compulsive disorder and is housebound. In spite of his difficulties, Dean is declared fit for work and so is no longer eligible to receive Job Seeker’s Allowance. The pair are faced with an impossible dilemma – similar to Daniel Blake’s in Ken Loach’s brilliant eponymous recent film: physically unable to work, yet ineligible for JSA, there’s nothing left for the central characters in Wish List but to resort to desperate measures…
Katherine Soper’s play is more than prescient. On the tube home I read an article in the Evening Standard: on the surface a pretty inoffensive piece, reporting the recent fall in unemployment figures in the UK. Only it forgot to mention the primary cause of this fall: in 2015, the number of zero-hour contract jobs rose by 104,000 to 1.7m. The Trades Union Congress recently reported that only one in 40 of all jobs created since the recession have been full-time positions. Beneath the surface impression that things are getting better lies the grim reality that with deindustrialisation, out-sourcing in a globalised economy, and the automation of labour – decent new jobs simply aren’t being created. Just demeaning, precarious and deracinating substitutes, like those that this play chronicles.
And if you want an explanation for the rise of populism across the Western hemisphere: look no further.
Wish List won the Bruntwood Prize for Playwrighting in 2015. It deserves it not only because it tackles an issue of such significance, but because it does so with real sensitivity. It presents character portraits that are relatable, funny, everyday – not victims, or stereotypes. And it manages to find a way of telling the story it tells without demonising, preaching, or being too overtly demonstrative. It’s difficult and heart-breaking to watch, but if offers no easy answers: Tamsin’s boss, played by Aleksandar Mikic, is a nice guy. Instead of giving us a get-out as most plays of this kind would, a deeper explanation for Tamsin and Dean’s suffering is demanded.
Following on from his brilliant Blue/Orange at the Young Vic last year, director Matthew Xia again really nails a difficult play. It’s unshowy direction entirely in the service of the text and the actors. And it’s given strength by a really strong cast – Erin Doherty, Aleksandar Mikic, Joseph Quinn, Shaquille Ali-Yebuah, there’s not a weak link. Two scenes with Erin Doherty and Shaquille Ali-Yebuah really stand out for their light touches of humour and tenderness, intermingled with an impossible sadness – sadness that they’ve been robbed of their youth, and that society has had so little to offer them.
With plays like this, together with Anna Jordan’s Yen at the Court last year, and Alexander Zeldin’s Love at the National, it feels like properly political (though non-dogmatic) social realist drama is having a bit of a renaissance on the UK theatre scene. Which makes up, though not entirely, for how reprehensibly and immorally irrelevant most of the other stuff is. I just wish the Royal Court would do what it initially set out to do, and programme more work like this.