Manchester Theatre Awards

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The Stars are Made of Concrete

Michelle Ashton
Messy Dress Productions
The GM Fringe Festival at The Kings Arms Theatre, Salford
26 July 2015 to 27 July 2015

Bev (Zoe Matthews) has never claimed relief even when it was due and has constantly pushed her dyslexic long term unemployed son Adam (Jarreau Benjamin) to find work. The relationship between mother and son comes under strain when Bev is made redundant and Adam starts courting single mother Sinead (Jenny Jordan O’Neill). Faced by unsympathetic bureaucrats Bev begins to doubt Oscar Wilde’s observation that, while we are all in the gutter, some of us are looking at the stars.

Michelle Ashton’s ‘The Stars are made of Concrete’ is a realistically understated look at the dehumanising effect of unemployment. Hard working Bev and her son are portrayed as sympathetic characters deserving of support rather than hard core scroungers. Ashton avoids strident melodrama and achieves authenticity by downplaying the drama of the situation. There are no threatening loan sharks just the grinding impact of constant rejection and the numbing effect of being dependent on day time television for distraction. 

There is, however, a rising sense of anger and futility in the play. This is captured in the performance of Zoe Matthews who seems constantly on the verge of screaming as she runs the maze of bureaucratic demands that are designed to fill official quotas rather than solve actual problems. 

Director Colin Connor’s production reflects the bleak situation faced by the characters. Performances take place on an empty stage with no distractions and remarks are addressed direct to the audience or in conversation. A sense of being under constant supervision comes from the omnipresent Carol (Jo Dakin) - a robotic Job Centre assistant seated in the audience -making petty demands that erode morale. Seating Carol within, rather than facing, the audience reduces the sinister impact of her presence- the limited visibility makes it easy to forget she is there.

In a play populated by realistic characters Carol and Gaz (John Bulwich as the best friend of Adam) rather stick out as plot and comic devices. Jarreau Benjamin’s fine performance, one moment tongue tied and surly the next gushing and over eager, makes clear why Adam constantly fails job interviews so that there is no real need for Carol to raise the question.

Jenny Jordan O’Neill’s confident and assured performance reflects how the simple matter of being employed can relieve the psychological problems associated with joblessness. Her role is vital in moving the play to a conclusion that, while hardly a happy ending, at least offers a glimpse of hope. 

‘The Stars are Made of Concrete’s depiction of life on the fringe of society for people willing to work but in need of support acts as a refreshing balance to the constant demonisation of benefit recipients to which we have become accustomed in the media.

 

Reviewer: David Cunningham