Late last month, the night before the UK was supposed to leave the European Union, I sat in a theatre in Hull and watched Middle Child’s musical Us Against Whatever.
It was a brilliant night, both charged and urgent. The show is set in a Hull karaoke bar and tells the story of Steph, born and bred in the city, and Anna from Poland, who has recently moved there. Performed in both English and Polish, it speaks to the experience of those living in a city, including the large number of immigrants who have made it their home.
It moves from 2008, and the glorious moment when Hull City made it to the Premier League, to the 2016 referendum when 67.6% of those who voted in Hull voted to leave. Us Against Whatever is a passionate portrait of a city and the spirit of all who live there and charts how their lives have been affected by globalisation, austerity and immigration. It is a stirring piece of popular theatre that completely fits the bill of 7:84 Theatre Company founder John McGrath’s idea of “a good night out”. It explores the urges and disaffection behind the Brexit vote as much as Sweat explains the election of Trump.
“Art always responds to the time,” said the National Theatre’s Rufus Norris in the wake of the Brexit vote back in 2016. “And this has been a huge wake-up call for all of us to realise that half the country feels that they have no voice. If we are going to be a national organisation we must speak to and for the nation. Our principal response initially is to listen: to listen to that voice and art will follow from that.”
Almost three years down the line, the UK is still trapped in Brexit limbo, and the industry continues to fear for its future. Last year, many industry leaders highlighted Brexit and continuing political uncertainty as major concerns, with many artists and producers fearing opportunities and funding will be denied them in Europe when the UK leaves the EU.
Nick Awde’s fine piece in The Stage about Creative Europe pointed to the benefits that EU funding has brought to the arts in the UK and what will be lost if the UK doesn’t continue to be involved in the programme. Arts Council England recently published a document detailing the challenges that will be faced by UK theatre after Brexit if there is no deal.
But while British theatre has, understandably, been worrying about its future in a post-Brexit world, the question is whether it has been doing enough in the last two years to give voice to that half of the country that feels it has no voice. The National’s My Country: A Work in Progress was a well-meaning but deeply flawed piece of rapid-response.
But subsequent programming at the NT – or indeed elsewhere – hardly suggests that theatre is urgently addressing the issue in a country that is more divided than ever.
Us Against Whatever strikes me as unusual in genuinely giving voice to the people of a Vote Leave city while being entirely non-judgemental. At the end of the performance, some people cheered while a man a couple of seats down from me firmly sat on his hands. That felt absolutely appropriate: after all, theatre is not there to confirm what we already think but to challenge.
So why did Us Against Whatever have so few performances, and why did it play only briefly in Liverpool and Hull? If the NT and other London theatres really want to listen, why didn’t they snap up a show made by a company that has listened to the hopes, dreams and disappointments of the people of Hull and done it in a form – a musical – to which many relate?
There is a disconnect between an industry predominantly based in metropolitan areas – which faces its own ongoing issues around diversity – and those who feel unheard, those who never go to the theatre, who think it’s not for them, or who have no access.
Middle Child is the kind of company that can bridge the gap – one that needs to be addressed when the effects of austerity, pressure on the NHS and schools, and benefit cuts are getting worse not better.
After the Brexit vote, actor and director Samuel West reflected a truth, when he said that many of those working in the arts were “in mourning”. But maybe it’s time to stop mourning and to listen as Middle Child has done. Because three years after the vote, theatre is still too much of an echo chamber – one that listens too little and privileges some voices over others. It really is time to wake up.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner