Bush Theatre, London – until 15 August 2015
GUEST REVIEWER CHARLOTTE VALORI LEARNS ABOUT LASPO*…
“When I was growing up the poor were seen as unfortunates. Now they’re seen as manipulative. Grasping. Scroungers. It’s very sad.” So reflects Shaun (Niall Buggy), a charming, penniless old Irishman with more than a touch of the blarney, facing yet another Kafka-esque nightmare negotiating with the sullen, unyielding bosom of our Housing and Benefits systems in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s The Invisible. On the day of the Budget, when the latest plans for supposedly solving society’s biggest problems have been touted across every media channel, it’s always tempting for pub philosophers and armchair politicians to make sweeping judgements and dangerously inhumane generalisations; we all have our private theories of blame and retribution for the taxpayer’s burden. The Invisible reminds us that, inside those synthetic statistics, thousands of real individuals – vulnerable, defenceless and alone – uniquely suffer the consequences of each government’s so-called solutions. If the problems they encounter are legal ones, recourse to free help is now dwindling fast, thanks to swingeing cuts to our Justice sector meted out by Grayling and Gove. Hence, these victims become The Invisible: the poorest and weakest in our society, whose voice can quietly stopped by lack of representation or, simply, despair.
However, on the front line of social justice, our heroine Gail (a fabulous Alexandra Gilbreath) is struggling on an ever-fraying shoestring to keep her legal advice service open, ably supported by her neurotic, passionate assistant Laura (Sirine Saba). Beside Shaun, Gail meets Ken (Nicholas Bailey), an estranged father who asks her on a date only to solicit free legal advice, and Aisha, suffering domestic violence in her arranged marriage. The extreme frustration and stress of Gail’s clients becomes a constant theme, along with their fundamental human need to talk: but time is always running out, just like the money. Ken’s disastrous court appearance as a Litigant in Person sees him tragically lose his cool – and, we suspect, his children.
Director Michael Oakley oversees a dynamic, minimalist production almost in the round. Ruth Sutcliffe’s design includes a ceiling of floating legal documents hung in serried ranks, suggesting death by a thousand paper cuts, each one a sword of Damocles hung over our protagonists, whose cases may fall on deaf ears or get lost in our latest Circumlocution Office. Lenkiewicz gives us much to ponder, though there’s a significant missed opportunity to draw important parallels between the Legal Aid system and the NHS by making her doctor a middle-aged, white, male, misogynistic snob; this tired trope gets an easy left-wing laugh, but only detracts from the overall debate. Bursts of song punctuate the piece, sometimes unsuccessfully disjointed, occasionally aptly matched to the mood.
Lenkiewicz’s language is refreshingly natural: she depicts the insidious rhetoric of the abusive husband Riz (Scott Karim) with particularly chilling brilliance. The finale, for me, crosses the borders of melodrama into plain emotional blackmail, but despite its heavy-handed ending, The Invisible is provocative, edgy and dark enough to take the sheen off this Budget’s claptrap – or any other. Grab your nearest armchair politician and propel them forthwith.
– CHARLOTTE VALORI
At the Bush Theatre, W12 until 15 August: 020 8743 5050
* The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012