A play about legal aid cuts… no, wait, it’s not that bad, please, don’t stop reading, give it a chance. Still here? Good, so, as I was saying…
Legal aid and the government’s decision to reduce eligibility to claim it is maybe not the most riveting of topics for a play. So when the Bush Theatre commissioned Rebecca Lenkiewicz to write such a play, there are many thoughts that spring to mind. Such as:
You want what as the topic of a play?
Are you mad?
Why did she actually say yes?
and the list goes on. Thankfully Lenkiwicz did said yes. And gave very good reason for that.
Such a remit in the hands of mere amateurs would no doubt be a disaster, then again, most things in the hands of amateurs usually are; take this review for starters. The first things that come to mind about legal aid, for those of us a little left leaning, is how it will create a two tier legal system, how the less fortunate of society will be trodden upon as they fail to get the help they need. So it would be all too easy to write something that shows this in all its ugly truth, the rich against the poor played out in the courtroom, the under-privileged against the privileged, and we all know where that ends.
It’s a relief then that Lenkiewicz goes for a more subtle approach. While our central character, Gail, may be a lawyer struggling to pay the bills of her small community based firm, it’s hardly noticeable for much of the time. In fact the two halves of the play both open around her (disastrous) blind dates as she seeks out romance to get away from the pressures of the day job. It’s humorous as we watch first the discomfort as the dates clatter along without success, and then they are used to subtly introduce the topic at hand; both dates in fact being just an excuse for the men to try to get help with their own issues, both unable to afford proper legal assistance.
Interspersed with her doomed love life we see her legal firm; her and an assistant, and the pressures of running this as funding is slashed. It may be subtly done, but for anyone with knowledge of the type of people who are the clients of such firms, it is clear what the message is going to be.
Over the course of two enjoyable hours we see reference to who is going to be most affected by such cuts; those with low level mental health, those living in sub-standard housing, those earning just enough to survive but not enough to employ a solicitor when things go wrong. Again, the list goes on, but it can be simplified maybe by just saying “the poor.” Or if you are a Tory lover, that can be rephrased for you as “unimportant people.”
The play flows smoothly, scenes move quickly from the blind dates around the restaurant table, into the law firm, into the lives of those affected and in need of such help. And slowly the picture is built, that these are people who aren’t scroungers, they aren’t leeching off us hard working upstanding citizens, but rather, and for various reasons, they are people in need of help. And the play shows that the help is going to vanish, leaving those who need this help stranded. Simple as.
The problem as ever with plays such as this is twofold. Firstly, in its simplicity. It is near-on impossible to do justice to such a serious topic in two hours whilst also entertaining. Second, and maybe more importantly, it’s already preaching to the converted. I doubt anyone who bothers to turn up to this charming little theatre in Shepherds Bush is the type of person who doesn’t already agree with Lenkiewicz’s views of being “deeply troubled about the way society increasingly talks about the poor and less fortunate.”.
Then again, as she also says, “All I can do is shout loudly about it. A play may be a very small ripple, but it’s a start.” And there are a few minutes during “The Invisible” when that ripple becomes a wave, reaching a level of awareness that should be recorded and played over and over again to anyone who thinks legal aid should be done away with; I’m thinking we should all club together and hire a big screen to play it on outside the next Tory party conference, anyone fancy chipping in?
For we see Aisha, one of three totally varied characters played by the same actor, Sirine Saba (and to me, the absolute stand out performance). She sits and explains what has happened to her. The background already having been set earlier; an arranged marriage, moved to live with her new husband and his over-bearing mother, and quickly isolated and abused, physically and mentally.
She speaks softly and slowly, in stuttering English, how she feels, how she is in need of help but has not been able to find anyone who will listen to her. Yet. It’s an incredibly powerful few moments, gone is the light heartedness of it all for the briefest of scenes.
Then Gail begins to ask her to expand, and there is a sad beauty as Aisha repeatedly changes the subject, seemingly shocked that someone is, at last, taking her seriously, that there is help at hand to someone in a strange place with no friends, no support and no money. “It was my birthday on Saturday, we went to Kew Gardens” she explains in complete contrast to the violence she has been the victim of as she pulls out sweets to offer to Gail, as in a way of saying thank you for listening.
In those few minutes perhaps the very meaning of the play is in full glare for anyone who takes the time to watch it, and maybe in the audience each night might be one or two people whose opinions could alter, and that could be the small ripple Lenkiewicz is referring to?
So, still reading? In that case, please do think about going, it is a wonderful way to spend two hours in a wonderful little theatre.