4/5 Stars

★★★★ Dynamic Storytelling from Smoke and Oakum Theatre

Charlotte Pegram review KINGS at Vault Festival

Kings, Smoke and Oakum TheatreAfter being bowled over by Happy Dave in Edinburgh this summer I was looking forward to seeing what Smoke and Oakum Theatre had to offer next. And Kings certainly satisfies expectations. A thoughtful, well-written piece of drama about homelessness in London, which confirms Oli Forsyth’s talent as a writer, and the theatre company as one to watch.

The play begins with three people who are sleeping rough under the arches of Waterloo station. It’s a perfect fit for the underground location of Vault Festival, whose tunnelled approach shelters a number of homeless people, so an audience member may well have walked passed some of the subjects for the play before they entered the safe and cosy auditorium. Smoke and Oakum have worked with Crisis to create this play, listening to accounts of those who have experienced life on the streets, and then creating a piece of theatre which foremost entrances the audience with the power of its storytelling, as well as enlightening them to the plight of the ever-increasing number of homeless on London streets.

Ebi and Bess have been on the streets for years, but the youngest person in their group, Hannah, has only recently joined their ranks. She assumes that her older companions are being altruistic in generously allowing her to share their spot with her. They live in a couple of tents which are tucked away under the arches out of sight. It’s not the best set-up but it’s safer sleeping rough in a group, and it’s better than the non-existent help being offered by local authorities. At first we witness the humdrum of their routine existence, which is pretty bleak; fighting for their begging spot and feeling pleased if they amass a tenner a day, but Forsyth’s writing doesn’t allow the tone to sink into hopelessness. Ebi and Bess like to goad one another about their begging technique, and the gentle Ebi (played by Andy McLeod) generates a good deal of humour through his deadpan humour – “it’s all about building a good rapport with the punters“.

Their lives are shaken up when Caz turns up one night, and manages to strike a deal to stay on their turf. Wooing them with booze and magic tricks she ingratiates herself into the group, and wins over the youthful Hannah in the process. Caz’s character believes in the basic rights of every human being. Conversely, she believes that if those rights aren’t being respected then it gives her licence to do as she pleases- including breaking into someone else’s house and squatting there. The character is vivid and dynamic, but even more so the actor playing her is captivating. Madeleine MacMahon has true stage presence and takes the audience with her, rousing us to an anarchic pitch so that we feel ready to join her anti-establishment ranks.

Forsyth’s insight into the world of London streets is fascinating, and the deftly woven comedy is what makes the show more than a simple ‘issue play’. Indeed, what is most enjoyable is the continuous line of narrative which the play pursues; it seems that too often fringe theatre tries to encompass too much – multi-roling dozens of character in a myriad of places, and what was enjoyable was seeing the lives of these character progress in this contained space and short period of time. If there are any areas to be smoothed, it is the moment when Bess retells her life story, it seemed out of keeping with the naturalism of the rest of the play, and is the only moment where the playwright’s research showed through too plainly, feeling almost a little preachy. But that small criticism aside, this is an excellent piece of new writing and I would urge you watch it and consider voting for it in the People’s Choice Awards 

Kings played at Vault Festival 1st to 5th of March 2017. Check their website to see when they will be performing the play again.










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