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Beyond Caring

Janet Etuk and Sean O'Callaghan in Beyond Caring at the National's Temporary Theatre, London. Photo: Mark Douet Janet Etuk and Sean O'Callaghan in Beyond Caring at the National's Temporary Theatre, London. Photo: Mark Douet

Opening at the National on International Workers’ Day, Alexander Zeldin’s precisely devised play is a raw, unsparing exploration of the social corrosion caused by zero-hours contracts.

Developed and originally presented at the Yard in 2014, the production depicts the working lives of four cleaners and their supervisor at a meat factory. The work is repetitive and physically arduous, their breaks are closely monitored, and it goes without saying the pay is meagre. Employed via agencies, there is no stability of any sort – their shifts can double in length without any notice and their pay is often delayed.

Zeldin’s understated play is not afraid of silence – or anger. Designer Natasha Jenkins has made the National’s Temporary Theatre feel even more warehouse-like than it already did, the room harshly strip-lit from above, and there are long periods in which the characters just sit at the lunch table, eking out their 15 minutes, or mop walls and floors, cleaning products stinging the air.

We are drip-fed hints about their lives outside the factory, the reasons why they all so desperately need this job. Though Janet Etuk’s delicate Grace has rheumatoid arthritis, her benefits have been stopped; Kristin Hutchinson’s Susan may well have no permanent place to live. We see them gradually ground down. Only in making Luke Clarke’s supervisor Ian into an awful David Brent-alike does Zeldin slightly undermine the potency of the piece. It’s a hard watch at times but that’s as it should be.

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Angry, urgent yet precise piece about the social damage done by zero-hours contracts