Try as it might theatre all too often gets working class culture badly wrong unless it is created by people who have lived experience of daily struggle and social disadvantage.
That’s exactly why the online revival of Beats & Elements’ 2015 production of No Milk for the Foxes is very welcome.
Using spoken word, beatboxing and live looping Beats & Elements founders Conrad Murray and Paul Cree explored David Cameron’s England from the perspective of their own class. It’s the tale of security guards Marx, a white working-class male from Croydon, and Spaxx, an Anglo-Indian from Mitcham, counting down the hours on a zero hours nightshift.
So did Conrad base these two funny and angry men on anyone he knew, or they are composites?
“It is when it comes to Spaxx, and it is also people I went to school with and I grew up with,” says Conrad. “He’s quite an aggressive, brash character at first, but he is subject of his environment, how he has grown up and been treated by the world.
“We both used our own stories but also people we knew. Both of us had worked zero hours contracts, and been on universal credit, or signed on. In the piece Paul’s character is about to have a kid, and he ain’t got a kid, but he based that on someone he knew.”
Race may be one of the subjects tackled by this show that was first performed at Camden People’s Theatre, but for the creative duo it was as much about class and people just about surviving on the margins of foodbank Britain.
“One of the main motivators to make the show was we felt like that class wasn’t really spoken about. I’m mixed race, but one thing I feel people get really lost on is it’s just race that divides us, but actually it is a class issue.
“You get just as poor white people treated badly in the workplace, manipulated, abused and thrown to the rubbish heap who are working class. For me, there’ll be a level of distraction that people who are our allies are being treated just as badly, it’s sad seeing people who should be on the same side sometimes warring and arguing with each other.
“I grew up on an estate and I saw people from all different races and backgrounds growing with up exactly the same struggles. In the workplace you get treated the same, you are disregarded and treated like trash.”
This online show is raising much needed funds for Beats & Elements, who like most companies are struggling to survive the impact of the virus, but is a show first staged in 2015 really still relevant even in a world where over one million Britons rely on food parcels?
“Five years ago it felt like no-one was talking about it and it was super important. Unfortunately, it still falls the same way now, and if anything class is being fully rubbed out politically because there are no prominent left wing socialist voices in this country,” notes Murray.
“Working class is a dirty word, and people want to throw massive blanket things like white privilege, even the word privilege, if you want to talk it about, no-one’s got privilege. It’s the 1%.”
In recent years there seems to have been an erosion of working class actors in theatre as privately educated performers scoop up roles and awards. It may have always been like this, but for artists like Murray and Cree getting into the business, and keeping going, remains a huge challenge.
“Going to drama school is super expensive, and already you have to pay £30, £40 for an audition. Being in the industry the money is so low, how are you supposed to keep doing what you are doing? There are some schemes that will support certain artists, but there are no schemes for working class artists.
“If you look at me and Paul, maybe I can apply for a some BAME funding, but he will be entitled to nothing, and stuff like that divides us. It’s a tricky subject because people act like it’s a distraction, but it’s not, it’s the real story.”
But despite all those obstacles Murray and Cree created something that still feels powerful today, and the audience reaction from half a decade ago still resonates with the Beats & Elements’ team.
“When you get people coming up going ‘oh my god, that was so real, man’, or I know those characters, it means a lot,” recalls Murray. “You want to see yourself represented because it makes you feel like you live in this world, and that your story is something worth telling.
“If I think about my Nan, and other family members, where they tell a story which might become a serious story, but all of a sudden there is some mad abuse in there, and then undercut it with a joke, or tell it in the most dry way. When you are telling class based stories when rich people tell it, or want to direct your work, they want it to be so dramatic, like the pain, the pain, the pain, but it is just your normal experience. This shit happens.
“You get see people looking like ‘what?’ and that’s what happened. Oh, my god are you ok, but this is regular.”
Murray is world class beatboxer incorporating that into his work, including the recent stage version of Crongton Knights, and the rhymes and music give this show a heart and vibrancy.
“Working class people are not represented in the theatre, or in the music industry, but my favourite artists are people you meet at open mics. Music and poetry is a massive part of working class culture as that’s how we preserve our stories through Irish ditties, or stories and songs. My music is hip hop and grime, and that isn’t really shown in the theatre enough.”