In case you missed it, there is a little thing called the ‘general election’ happening in a couple of weeks. Across England the electorate appears gripped by apathy. Not for us the forceful, passionate women leading vibrant nationalist campaigns capable of instilling a sense of self-determinative belief in voters. For those sandwiched between Wales and Scotland the choice is between three different shades of beige – one shiny as a Christmas ham, one an amalgamation of several sock-puppets and one that leaves no discernible impression at all – or, how could we forget, everyone’s favourite part-man, part-pub sound bite generator.
Voter turn-out has been declining since the 1950 election when almost 84% of people cast their ballot and by 2010 had sunk to 65% of the electorate (amazingly this is still higher than the nadir in 2001 which saw less than six out of ten eligible voters bothering to have an opinion on who they wanted to control their lives). In the intervening years mass political movements have come and gone but the institutions of Westminster have remained as hierarchal as they have ever been, and – based on a simplistic metric of ‘private education and Oxbridge’ – may have gone backwards to Victorian levels of patrician governance, with few MPs from across the political spectrum able to claim a background that even Tony Blair’s favoured ‘Mondeo Man’ could identify with.
The question of how to get people back to the ballot box may not be solved by the London fringe theatre scene but at least they are trying. At present you can barely make it into any black-box space without being assailed by the sound of discontent with the political system. Camden’s People Theatre is no different and No Milk For Foxes finds itself at the centre of three weeks of drama drawn together under the appropriately-titled banner of The State We’re In.
The most refreshing thing about No Milk For Foxes is that it does not lecture its audience. There is little overt politicisation in the narrative and no attempt to indoctrinate those watching with a finale that involves a rousing rendition of The Internationale. Instead it seeks to engage with political issues by shining light onto the mundane everyday pressures of living in a 21st century economy where ‘flexible working’ refers to the terrifying prospect of zero hours contracts and no money in next week’s paycheck rather than the ability to work from home on Friday afternoons.
It paints the grim reality that many of those, myself included, who regularly attend the theatre rarely have to think about and often, in all truth, choose not to. It speaks about, and directly to, an audience that is often missing from the stage as middle-class playwrights wrap themselves up in middle-class issues. It is worth noting that the evening I attended the bulk of the audience was made up of students, and they appeared totally engrossed in the action from start to finish.
Adorned in baseball hats and bomber jackets, and imbued with the quiet confidence and imposing presence of high-street bouncers keeping things quiet of a Friday night, Paul Cree and Conrad Murray, are a refreshing change from the identikit drama-school stereotype of skinny jeans, high cheek-bones and complex hair maintenance. They give the impression of experiencing something of the lives they portray and this helps gloss over moments when the occasional lack of polish threatens to derail proceedings.
Cree and Murray make an engaging double-act. Kree, as Mark, is the more thoughtful of the two and opens up the world to question. Murray’s Sparkx is something of a livewire. Appearing more in the present, he is a bundle of energy that struggles to find an expressive outlet for it. Between them they have developed the close but uneasy rapport of two men thrown together by circumstance and finding ways to bond despite their differences.
Their relationship is marked by the inarticulacy prevalent in modern interpretations of working-class male masculinity (and it would be fascinating to view No Milk For Foxes as part of a double-bill with the current revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo). Mark can see the inherent unfairness in society but is unable to put this coherently into words, and suffers from a crisis in confidence in unfamiliar social contexts. Sparkx once found a passion in drama but has discovered the financial reality that condemns him to the outside looking in. His naturally ebullient personality containing an aggressive defensiveness that kicks into gear at any perceived threats to his opinions.
In both of them we sense the frustration of a life directed by circumstance. The ability to enact change in one’s life, to have personal agency, seems entirely removed. Society has forced them to adopt almost subsistence lifestyles that operate entirely in the present. The future is not something filled with goals and aspirations but is a hazy, ill-defined ideal.
A mysterious hole in the fence is returned to throughout and forms a neat metaphor; their security guard’s office is as much a prison cell chaining them to their way of life and the fence the possibility of escape and change. To go through the hole is to go down the rabbit hole. Yet opportunity goes hand in hand with fear, and the comfort of the old must be swapped for the unknown of the new. Overcoming this they may finally emerge from Plato’s cave into the sunlight of a new reality.
Murray and Cree are better known for their beatboxing and live poetry then as actors. This may show itself occasionally in a production that could do with tightening, with some ideas stretched to breaking point, but it maintains a refreshingly vérité-feel throughout and, in their rawness, Murray and Cree are likeable guides.However it is in the Brechtian interludes, where Murray and Cree return to their core skills and perform spoken word, live-loop and beatbox, where much of the magic happens. These moments switch the tone of the play and allow the audience to engage with a vivid heightened reality where Mark and Sparkx can abandon the inarticulacy of their day to day lives and find a way of expressing deep-rooted truths and fears.
Murray is a particularly adept performer and the final performance, which brings us back to the title, is a beautiful poignant piece of spare lyricism. It is reminiscent of Kate Tempest’s sublime Brand New Ancients (perhaps unsurprising as both have close ties to that south London powerhouse of community theatre, Battersea Arts Centre) and provides a heartfelt coda to an evening of thought-provoking drama.
No Milk For Foxes Guardian Feature
No Milk For Foxes Promo
Kate Tempest – Brand New Ancients (clip)