In an age of austerity, Britain’s dramatists are putting poverty onstage — with mixed results. Like Ken Loach’s film “I, Daniel Blake,” the stories often center on those that fall through the cracks of work and welfare. Katherine Soper’s prize-winning debut “Wish List,” now playing at the Royal Court, follows suit, showing a brother and sister carving out a breadline existence in a society that’s either callous or crocked — perhaps both. Awful as they are, such day-to-day trials risk feeling like tropes, but a play that starts off illustrative comes to genuinely care for its characters. In that, it doesn’t just rail against a reductionist culture. It rebels.
Poverty onstage has its pitfalls. Ticket prices alone see to that, and, though theater can be a campaigning force, plays rarely push the public conversation as Loach’s film has done. Often playwrights get stuck between the tragedy of poverty and its banality: Damned if they document, damned if they dramatize. “Wish List,” which won the prestigious Bruntwood Prize, attempts to do both.
Soper starts by showing us the strains of shift work. Nineteen year-old Tamsin (Erin Doherty) has been allocated to the warehouse of an online shopping corporation. Her task is to package products for postage, and at an unrealistic rate: 400 an hour as a new recruit, one every ten seconds. Falling short means fewer shifts, and, each evening, her stickler of a line-manager (Aleksandar Mikic), a man with targets of his own, upbraids her lack of progress and imposes penalty points. No matter that the system lets her down with stock shortages, dodgy scanners and cardboard cuts, it’s her pay packet that takes a hit.
Following the death of their mother, Tamsin lives with her brother Dean (Joseph Quinn), a bright 17-year-old with a severe behavioral condition. Obsessive-compulsive traits stop him leaving the flat. He taps out a rhythm to keep himself calm, and repeatedly rearranges his hair — all of which Quinn plays with both knotted intensity and a self-flagellating frustration. Nonetheless, he’s been deemed fit for work, and his benefits have been stopped as a result. He spent the assessment sitting on his hands to stop his tics, his mind clouded over with the stress. Without work, they’ve nothing.
Primarily “Wish List” rails against reductionism. It fumes over a one-size-fits-all system; a society that reduces people to data. Tamsin isn’t just judged by her productivity. Her toilet breaks are timed. Her regulation boots don’t fit. Dean’s complex condition is forced through a form. Sanctions hang over everyone’s head. Austerity Britain is a place where even unskilled work has become ultra-competitive, and where disability is a sliding scale. It is not just degrading. It’s dehumanizing.
Slowly, Soper’s play rebels, and it does so simply by spending time with its characters. It sees them in full. As she grows closer to her co-worker Luke (Shaquille Ali-Yebuah), a 16-year-old with all the youthful confidence she lacks, Tamsin gradually reveals herself: the intelligence that rarely surfaces, the interests and ambitions she keeps to herself, a soft sense of humor to boot. Their drink-date builds to a tender moment: singing Meat Loaf’s “I Would Do Anything For Love,” she warms to her song, then takes flight.
Doherty is outstanding — compensation enough for some workaday writing. Soper’s structure is straightforward and her dialogue can be slack, but her characters are well-rounded and that’s catnip for actors. She gives them dignity and strength, and Doherty plays anxiety with admirable restraint. Tamsin’s one of those people whose insecurities show up on the surface, and Doherty finds all manner of tiny fudges — speech defects and fidgets — that must feel much clumsier than they actually appear. Words splutter out of her mouth, and she never seems able to fully catch her breath.
That’s telling in itself. Shift work squeezes the space out of her life, and Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s functional design lets the workplace take over the space. It pushes their small flat into one corner of the traverse stage, where envelopes seem to follow her home, flying down from the same metal product chute. Director Matthew Xia draws careful performances from his cast, even if his warehouse largely lacks credibility, and Giles Thomas ups the emotions with a searing score of grinding metal and sharp tinnitus stings — harsh sounds that slice through a tender play.