Battersea Arts Centre, London – until 1 April 2017
This is not the beginning of the end of the housing crisis, despite what LUNG Productions would have us believe. This is a campaign that has been raging for four years with the simple hope of finding new homes within Newham for 29 single mothers. Funding cuts removed their councillors and support workers, it’s only right that the council should forcefully relocate them as well. After all of the protests, the petitions (complete with thousands of signatures) and the forceful occupation of East Thames Housing Association, Newham Council building & abandoned homes on the Carpenters Estate, only half of the women have been successfully re-homed. Others are faced with the dilemma of private landlords, exorbitant rents and the risk of being made homeless once again. Only this time, they are all separated from each other, littered across the borough – divide and conquer.
E15 takes the audience back to the start, the documentary theatre that narrates the story of the Focus E15 campaign, its inception and its cause. The ensemble of four mothers and one withdrawn, painfully shy teenage boy living on his own is instantly empathetic, lighting the fire of protest within its audience as well as conveying the abject terror of being made homeless when heavily pregnant or trying to look after new-borns. Jasmin (Isis Davis) is the leader of the pack, emotive and powerful as she constantly reaches her breaking point. Sam (Emily Cairns) is her right-hand woman, tough as nails and bolshy to the point of intimidating – it’s the only way to get things done. Sapriya (Bianca Stephens) is the transformative mother, initially afraid of deportation but eventually walking through guards and over security barriers to put her point across. These three lead the charge, but it is Donna (Danielle Phillips) that adds the brains, the strategy, the revolutionary communist – oh and, by the way, she doesn’t live on the estate. One can’t help but notice the disjunction of a campaigner that for all intents and purposes has no financial crises herself, a protester with privilege. But as a force, these ordinary individuals, forced into a ‘fight or flight’ war, stand their ground, push their cause and engineer a full scale assault on Newham council.
Posters are stuck to the walls of the set, slogans like “Social Housing Not Social Cleansing” (the by-line of the Focus E15 campaign) and “These People Need Homes, These Homes Need People” (the slogan attributed to the Carpenters Estate occupation). Children’s chalk drawings litter the floor, an apt reminder that these hardcore occupational campaigners are also mothers, trying to protect their children (as well as themselves) from being thrown out of their homes. Sorry, ‘re-housed’, probably relocated from London to Manchester or Birmingham, in order to make way for important new private estate developments. Facts; figures; emotions; banners; social issues; political stances; legislative articles, all shouted and screamed and shoved down our throats, the only way to stand a chance of grabbing any media attention and gaining momentum.
Spotlights shine on documentary portions of the production – interviews from ex-civil servants, Citizens Advice workers, even an ex-shadow housing minister (all anonymised), reveal the extent of the housing issue in Greater London. Verbatim dialogue fans the flames over to Brixton, Southwark and Edgware, to name but a few. A homeless man in the audience shows over proceedings, stopping the play in its tracks, on the verge of tears at the hopelessness of the situation. Suddenly this is not a play, this is real life. This is not a visual interpretation that we as an audience can watch, feel and discuss afterwards in the bar over happy hour cocktails. This is real… It’s disappointing to know that the character was a plant, but the aftereffect remains.
E15 is a play, but it’s not fiction, or a past account. It’s happening, right now, on London’s doorstep. Every weekend a market stall in Stratford Broadway is manned by campaigners, a continued pursuit of the cause. This production is an ensemble piece, a collective effort to do justice to the lives of those single mothers that were brave enough to take a stand to save a future both for themselves and their children.