21st April 2017
This review was written for a one-off exercise to the following brief. ‘It should be descriptive and analytical – commentary but not a synopsis. And no personality or opinion’. If it’s managed to achieve that but you are still interested in my view it is summarised in a very brief postscript.
Within weeks of news that 93% of flats in one of city centre Manchester’s biggest new housing developments were snapped up by foreign investors, Sh!t Theatre return to the city with a very timely romp through matters property-related.
Warming up to the looped air-punch inducing strains of Heart’s ‘Alone’, like boxers on the way to the ring, Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit come out fighting and never let the energy levels drop. They tear through stylings, genres and formats to tell stories that take in the wider social context of housing today but then lift off the roof to look at those seeking shelter underneath.
The two women live in (you couldn’t make it up) Windsor House, a run-down block of council flats in Hackney, loved only by those glad to have a place to rest their head in the chaos of London’s terrifying property market.
The show’s starting point is the tedious tidal wave of unredirected mail that drops through their letter box. Cheekily skirting any legalities Sh!t Theatre rip it open to build a picture of the long gone previous residents of their new home. A depressing rag-bag of modern city life emerges – sex clinics, casinos, P60s, overdrafts, outstanding bills, unpaid tax.
Giddy with the excitement of the search or perhaps seeking escape from the dreariness of the initial findings the dramatic detectives latch on to the more unusual and unexplained junk mail (supplemented by some quick internet searching) to create increasingly elaborate imagined scenarios. A man looking after his child alone after losing a wife to cancer or another tenant pursued for unpaid gambling debts by the local Turkish mafia. The trail may go cold occasionally but their suppositions become ever more madcap. The Holy Grail of their search is Rob Jaecock (“not his real name, almost his real name”) a man whose delivered detritus is so bizarrely random that they conclude he must be an “adult baby”.
Hackney’s wider housing situation is largely evoked through video clips contrasting the aspirational spouting of property developers with squalid views of a mountain of discarded mattresses, rows of neglected properties and daylight drug use in a high street phone box. We are indelicately reminded of the social housing built after the Second World War to address a previous chronic housing shortage by the salesman flogging off new ‘luxury’ flats priced out of the reach of most Londoners and built on a site where such properties stood until only recently. A desperate tale of local homeless people cleared from an unused piece of land that is then quickly fenced off will seem sadly familiar to Mancunians who witnessed a local university ruthlessly evict a group of homeless activists from empty land now secured behind a metal fence just around the corner from HOME.
The multilayered story-telling starts to spiral ever inwards. Opening all these letters leads them to discover that their tenancy at Windsor House is actually an illegal sub-let of a council property. The cramped, poorly maintained flat is revealed to have another life as a money-making machine for the dishonest tenant, letting agents and complicit sub-tenants. Cautious attempts to try to rectify this are met with indifferent bureaucratic buffoonery.
This is not however a drab theatrical diatribe on the housing crisis – using the various trappings of melodrama, music hall and comedy routines the production contains much ‘show’ as well as ‘tell’. At its core this is a story of the people who live within those Windsor House flat walls. Dressed as postboxes Becca and Louise use the old-fashioned medium of personal letters to address the tensions of being both friends and flatmates. They move from initial bemusement at each others foibles to nit-picking and eventual teeth-gritted frustration. It’s all made worse as their accommodation options are so limited – they’re trapped.
When Sh!t Theatre sing “you can’t spell Windsor House without us” it’s a reminder that property is also about people; and their final mournful melody on the loss of a world where there were milkmen, paperboys and evening TV is a swansong for a time when homes were part of communities not property portfolios.
Postscript – I suspect the above review may have failed to meet the brief and betrayed my views too much. If not, here it is. I loved Letters To Windsor House. So much so, I went to see it twice…