Royal Exchange, Manchester.
2 October 2017.
While in the Royal Exchange’s main theatre Sarah Frankcom’s production of ‘Our Town‘ cleverly plays around with place and time, in the studio next door Jackie Hagan’s new play ‘Cosmic Scallies’ firmly sticks a pin in a map to locate us in the here and now. Welcome to 44 Feltons on a council estate in Skelmersdale.
The latest co-production between the Royal Exchange and Graeae Theatre Company tells the story of a young woman Dent (Rachel Denning) and her childhood friend Shaun (Reuben Johnson). Dent has returned home to 44 Feltons after time at university and Shaun calls round to help with some jobs.
It’s a tale of two friends reunited, but also tracks a day in the life of someone in pain and negotiating an unsympathetic, flawed healthcare system. Stuck on the end of a six month waiting list to see a pain specialist, Dent’s only hope of controlling her agonising symptoms is stronger medication. Her quest to get a prescription becomes a herculean one as, restricted by pain, she moves very slowly back and forth between chemist and doctor’s surgery. With the clock ticking away, Shaun’s offers of help are repeatedly dismissed as Dent is determined to achieve this herself.
They never leave the cramped constraints of Bethany Wells’s compact set. A grey street scene tightly packed with shopping precinct seating – unadorned, unwelcoming and in disrepair. Dent negotiates the landscape with difficulty and is unable to access elements of it unaided. Shaun meanwhile moves sinuously through it, at ease as he reclines across a broken bench.
You get a feel for Skelmersdale (aka Skem) through the stories they tell each other. A place where you don’t draw attention to yourself by being clever, where the rules of conformity are so restrictive you can step out of line by wearing a tie for work or having a bag that’s slightly too big. Self-Deprecating Karen, Dufflecoat Dave, Hearing Aid Kev – everyone knows your name and your business. Manchester, where Dent spent time at university is seen as a far-off exotic location peopled by faintly ridiculous monocle-wearing panini eaters.
Beneath the bravado lurks a town of absent dads, worn out mams, empty shops, drink and drugs. Shaun and Dent are two people rich with potential stuck in a place where aspirations are limited and opportunities in short supply. Shaun’s knowledge is hard-earned and all about survival – where to get the cheapest food or how to spot when trouble is about to kick off. Dent meanwhile was clever enough to get to University but felt as out-of-place there as she does in Skem.
The friendship between Dent and Shaun is carefully constructed and beautifully performed. After years of familiarity, they are effortlessly at ease with each other but they also know the right words to deploy when seeking to hurt. Hagan avoids any overly neat romantic dynamic between them – Dent is proudly bisexual and Shaun’s tender feelings are almost brotherly. His motivations for kindness, we learn later, are also part of a bigger plan.
Anger never surfaces often but it’s there. The injustice of the characters’ situations isn’t any less obvious or felt less keenly for not being mega-phoned at us. Hagan feels too much love for her home town to indulge in poverty porn. Her characters are always more than the sum of their troubles and their lives are not offered up to be pitied.
What’s most admirable about Amit Sharma’s direction, is that true to Hagan’s script, it doesn’t strain to gloss over the ordinariness of their daily lives. This is a play about people who can spend endless hours negotiating bureaucracy, struggling with adversity and just getting by. That’s what we are given – no more and no less. Welcome to their world.
Hagan doesn’t need to seek inspiration in some fantasy reimagining of working class life. Such is her poetic skill, she can even find beauty in the delayed gratification squeezed from a scratch card. In a dreamy sequence, Dent and Shaun become increasingly ecstatic as they recite an imaginary shopping list of small pleasures – spam fritters, Frazzles, Freddos, cans of Kestrel and even Pot Noodles. These lives might be fraying at the edges but ‘Cosmic Scallies’ never lets hope slip away. It’s warm, funny and heartbreakingly believable.