Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Parallel Lives

Actress, writer and producer Laura Lindsay is one of three actresses in her own production Parallel. Written by Lindsay and developed with Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, and Harrogate Homeless Project, it highlights the homelessness crisis and starts with the roll of a dice by an audience member to decide which roles they will each perform. Thus there are six different permutations, reflecting the themes of chance and fortune in the play.

Laura emphasises that the play’s structure is by no means a gimmick and developed naturally out of her research, which quickly indicated that every homeless person has a very different story to tell.

“It did just come to me as a way of telling these stories although of course I did have to think it through more carefully when it came to the practicalities,” she laughs. “But for me, it was intrinsic to the piece that, in a way, the characters could be facets of the same person. We wanted to embrace the fact that it’s a piece of theatre about a difficult subject rather than risk it being a little bit patronizing or stereotypical, so we felt that if we acknowledge with the audience from the outset that we’re actors and ‘now there’s a piece of theatre going to happen and essentially any one of us could be in this circumstance’, rather than playing the idea of that.

“The dice roll explores the impact of chance on the outcome of our lives. It illustrates that homelessness can happen to anyone, given that so many people in the UK are just one pay cheque away from being homeless as the national housing crisis worsens.

“The number of people rough-sleeping has doubled since 2010 and Parallel explores this as well as our broader understanding of home, purpose and charity through the lives of three strangers who desperately need to connect.”

By coincidence, the production comes just a few weeks after the fiftieth anniversary of the BBC’s initial screening of Ken Loach’s classic “Cathy Come Home” and it’s tragic to realise that, if anything, the homelessness situation has actually become worse in the intervening years.

“Absolutely, and it’s so prevalent now that people can feel powerless,” Laura agrees. “I wanted to write something because I felt so uncomfortable that I didn’t know what to do about the prevalence of street homelessness. But my research showed me that that’s the tip of the iceberg and actually there are ten times as many people who are the hidden homeless, living in temporary housing, in hostels, or sofa surfing.

“I started properly doing the research for this in January 2015. But the seed of the idea that I wanted to write something about homelessness was sown back in 2013, when I was doing an immersive one-on-one show in an unbelievably opulent five-star hotel in London. The penthouse, which we visited as part of the show was something like £1,500 for a night but on the walk to the hotel, under some nearby railway arches, I’d have passed several homeless people. I just thought this inequality was so wrong and yet I was walking to work and having to ignore it. I just thought I had to ask ‘how are we able to let that happen and turn a blind eye to it?’. I had to find a way in to embracing the fact that these are people, not something to be written off.

“I also wanted to interrogate the whole notion of charity and whether there’s any such thing as a selfless act.

“I believe that everyone is a good person at heart and faced with any particular person’s struggle would want to do something to help. But sometime a good person can do bad, or thoughtless, things and there are layers of fear, of preconception, of thinking ‘I can’t help everyone’ or ‘if I give you a coffee, am I somehow encouraging you to not seek help?’ All of these questions mean quite often that you just don’t talk to these people you pass on the street because it’s too overwhelming to contemplate.

“So I thought it would be interesting to find a way in to looking at someone’s journey to that point and finding out why we would treat these people, who are in dire circumstances, inhumanely.

“I wanted to find a voice for people who are often not represented in a fair way and that came out of talking to people who are homeless, sometimes quite informally, other times as part of an organised session, and feeling just really humbled and having my eyes opened to just how little I really knew about the situation.

“I realised how close most of us have been to being without a home but we’ve been lucky enough to have some sort of support network at the time. We’ve all had moments where we feel insecure in terms of belonging, whether it be worries about financial things, whether it be a relationship issue, or your work and home being so far apart that you feel that you’re never at home. Perhaps your rent is so expensive that you’re working every hour of the day.

“So a sense of security and home and belonging unites us all and it’s not just a case of having a roof over your head, it’s possible to feel homeless even if you’ve got a house,” Laura points out, while acknowledging that Crisis and Shelter, two major national charities who are trying to help homeless people day in and day out, both came out of Cathy Came Home.

“So theatre and film genuinely can affect social change. We shouldn't ever forget that.”

*Parallel is produced by Black Toffee, and directed by Peter Carruthers. It’s at Hope Mill Theatre until Saturday 5th November before touring to ARC in Stockton (9th November); Derby Theatre (11th November); Lincoln Drill Hall (17th-19th November); and Square Chapel in Halifax (24th November).

Kevin Bourke