An empty space strewn with litter and cruel looking industrial equipment. In one corner, a darkish staff communal area. A man, Phil, one of the cleaners [Sean O’Callaghan] crosses and shuts himself away in the toilet, taking his Dick Francis novel with him- beginning what becomes a cycle of repetitive behavior. Soon the sliding doors to the factory opens and in walk Becky [Victoria Moseley] Susan [Hayely Carmichael] and Grace [Janet Etuk] here to be interviewed by cleaning boss Ian [Luke Clarke]. So begins Alexander Zeldin’s production Beyond Caring, a devised piece focusing on the lives of cleaners on zero hours contracts at a meat factory.
Statistically, there are around 600,000 on zero hours contracts in the UK, with 16% of those people not earning enough to make ends meet. This allows companies to exploit their workers’ needs with sometimes-unsociable extra hours and impossible demands, a factor Beyond Caring explores very well. Also explored is the sense of entrapment suffered by even the manager Ian, who tries to mask his despair by bragging about his spirituality and the occasional glance at porn on his mobile, which sends him to the loo for a quick wank.
The play does not number crunch, preach, argue- it simply shows us what it is like to be part of the working poor- and it does so with unnerving raw emotion and despair.
Take Becky, whose problems are so deeply internalized, we fear that she will become psychotic. Or Grace who is bullied by Ian. Or Susan, who is unable to admit she is homeless and in need of real help. And the stillness given to Phil whose psychic pain renders him frozen and immobile and whose need for love, recognized by a Becky in a similar situation, leads them to a fumbled failed love making attempt, made all the more heart wrenching by Phil’s tears- as if the human contact unfreezes him.
We realize that everything has to be in snatched moments, which is the real terror and despair of the working poor. They don’t have the money for the time to invest in being human- the pressure of time, like the pressure of the job, squeezes it out of them. It is not that the jobs have brought on and out each and everyone’s inner torments and demons, but rather that the working conditions exacerbate them even further. Life for these people cannot extend itself beyond this- they themselves, listless and as if life has gone away from them, are beyond caring.
So the question is, why? And must always be why? Why the exploitation? Why the awful working conditions? Why the bad and sometimes lack of pay? Why force others to live like this? Who will care if we don’t?
The play is inspired by The Cleaner by Florence Aubenas and the director himself spent time working as a cleaner. It seems plot less, rather like a good Mike Leigh film where the very small things become intensely huge and meaningful. Even breath is magnified on Zeldin’s stage. The company all give carefully observed and enunciated performances, Hayley Carmichael especially bringing humor to her character.
And it isn’t in the least bit patronizing. Instead it is agonizing and loving. And an investigation into what happens to the human soul when its main and only preoccupation is to survive on a very basic level.
Beyond Caring runs until 26th July
is written by Alexander Zeldin through devising with the company. Performed by
Alexander Zeldin – Director
Natasha Jenkins – Designer
Tamara Moore – Producer
Josh Grigg – Sound Designer
Marc Williams – LX Designer
Grace Gummer – Assistant Director