Even if you didn’t know that Anders Lustgarten is an activist as well as a writer, you could tell from the start of his new play which “side” he’s on. At a meeting between a civil servant, an investor, representatives of “Empathy Capital” and “Competitive Confinement Ltd” and one “James Asset-Smith”, the complete privatisation of public services is proposed. “Problem families can now be monetised,” they decide, delivering high returns if social ills are remedied – or if fewer cases are treated.
The following scenes show the dire results of such an experiment. A retired nurse stands by helplessly as a “debt tax meter” is fitted in her home. A prison officer tells a teenager caught up in a riot that, since he has an otherwise clean record and hopes of a university education, he’s unlikely to reoffend, making him the perfect candidate for a short-term stay. (The prison company, which receives money only if its charges commit no further crimes, isn’t interested in serial offenders.)
Cut to a hospital, where the retired nurse is waiting to be seen after lacerating her arm while attempting to smash her debt tax meter. Finally, her injury is deemed unworthy of attention given the hospital’s “exceptionally high patient volume” – a message delivered by a middle manager in the bland tone of an automated telephone response.
If the first part of the play presents the problems, the second proposes a solution. A group of protesters are holding the Court of Public Opinion in a disused building to try “not just the bankers, [but] the whole system”. Their only audience is a young, recently laid-off banker, who has come out of curiosity, sceptical of their efforts.
Lustgarten’s script is funny and well-observed, but clever details aren’t enough to build dramatic tension. The first part begins to feel like a checklist of public services, with the same point – that the interests of business and society are not necessarily linked – repeated. Characterisation is sketchy, as if secondary to the play’s polemic content, leaving us with types: fat-cat financier, hippy activist, over-skilled immigrant worker. Their choices aren’t explained enough for us to believe what happens in the second half when their disparate lives collide.
The production is “without decor”, serving the theme of austerity well: no offstage, no frills. In the absence of a set, costumes take on a greater importance – the financier’s red braces contrasted with the activists’ layers of vintage woollens. The acting is mostly excellent. Laura Elphinstone and Meera Syal slip into different roles with ease, Syal being particularly good as a hardened but good-humoured activist. The play is packed with witty lines and topical references – even horsemeat gets a mention – but what it lacks is drama.