Beyond Caring review – compelling exploration of zero-hours working

The Yard, London
Devised by the cast and director Alexander Zeldin, this piece on the emotional fallout of minimum-wage lives is quietly devastating

Director Alexander Zeldin on the working poor and Beyond Caring

Zero-hours contracts suit some people. But mostly they only suit employers who want to keep their costs down. Susan (Hayley Carmichael), Grace (Janet Etuk) and Becky (Victoria Mosley) have been taken on by a meat-packing factory as cleaners to work alongside Phil (Sean O'Callaghan), on minimum wage, zero-hours contracts. That means that they jump when Ian (Luke Clarke), their nitpicking, self-important supervisor, says jump – whatever the humiliations.

It means that Becky can't take a day off to see her child and that Grace, passed fit for work despite her crippling rheumatoid arthritis, struggles to keep up. It means that when asked to work throughout the night, at the same basic rate, none of them are in a position to say no. It means that losing a pound in the coffee machine is a heartbreaking calamity.

Devised by the cast and scripted by director Alexander Zeldin, this understated 90 minutes is quietly devastating. It achieves the unlikely feat of watching other people do the cleaning seem totally compelling. As time moves, slowly, the whole thing gradually becomes more and more heightened, emotionally and theatrically.

The beauty of the piece, with its double-edged title, is that it eschews sob stories in favour of genuine tragedy. Just as these people keep themselves pretty much to themselves until the final, desperate moments, so the play always slyly shows and never tells. There are no big speeches. There is much awkward silence. People reveal themselves in small gestures: Grace inching her chair towards Phil as he tries to bury himself in a Dick Francis thriller, Becky's passive-aggressive use of music, Susan's voice, wispy as if it's worn out. There are gusts of sadness; moments of pure desolation. But mostly there is work, with people struggling to survive: to the end of the shift, the end of the day, to the end of life itself.

• Until 26 July. Box office: 07548 156 266. Venue: The Yard, London.

Director Alexander Zelddin on the working poor and Beyond Caring

Contributor

Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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