The Stars are Made of Concrete, Kings Arms, Salford, 26th & 27th July 2015
Anyone who has spent much time on the dole or in the job centre would have cracked a wry smile as they made their way into Salford’s most interesting theatre for The Stars are Made of Concrete. Carol (Jo Dakin) was sat at a desk in the crowd, typing away and chatting on the phone, barking orders as audience members entered the room. Almost immediately, without even knowing the plot, you could see what role she would be playing. She was a job centre support worker, and an extremely adroit one at that. Mixing humour into their usual patronising and less that sympathetic demeanour, she was to be a key element of this performance, mixing a sense of social awareness with an ability to laugh at the horror of life for Britain’s many jobseekers.
This societal consciousness was a key element of the whole play. Bev (Zoe Matthews) was an admin worker of fifteen years, suddenly made redundant and finding it increasingly difficult to make her way back into a packed and competitive world of work. After finding herself jobless, she realises that her son Adam (Jarreau Benjamin) hasn’t been exaggerating about how hard it is to find work. Despite this realisation, though, she is too proud to admit what she’s learnt. The tensions between mother and son refuse to die down. And then Adam, who we see trying his hardest to find work, meets Sinead (Jenny Jordan-O’Neill) and the two of them try to make it work despite their difficulties. All of this hardship is given some light relief by Gaz (John Bulwich), whose questions about dwarves and horses and ladyboys are probably too blue to print here.
What is perhaps most impressive about this piece of theatre is that it shows all this hardship in an amusing way, while also managing to never become condescending or over the top. So often you see plays about the plight of the poor that lay it on so thick, so dramatically, that the people become only caricatures, never creating the layers of emotion that resonate and make them seem real. The Stars are Made of Concrete, though, features a cast of characters lifted straight from real life. They’re lovable, they’re proud, they’re prone to mistakes, and they’re trying really hard to make a life for themselves and those they care about.
Arguably most endearing of all is Adam. As he struggles through job interviews nobody has properly prepared him for we want to buy him a pint and say better luck next time, as he struggles to find the words to say to a girl he likes we laugh, but we also remember the same feeling from our own lives, when he sticks up for his girlfriend and shouts at his mum we cheer, and even when he gets into an ill-advised fight we respect him because we understand his reasons. And Adam can only be such a successful character because of the way Benjamin portrays him.
It’s a successful show for all the cast, though, and if anyone else deserves a special mention it’s probably Dakin. It’s quite a feat to play a job centre worker at their worst and still be the most enjoyable and entertaining person on the stage.
The play has its clichéd moments and lines, but there are far too few to mention them in any detail. In some ways it’s a well told tail, too. But when you tell it well, and particularly when you take a stand against the craziness of the Conservative cuts while you’re doing that, you’re going to have a pretty admirable piece of theatre on your hands. Praise all round for those involved.