AISLE SAY Special from Brighton, England (Boston)

" Grief Encounter "

a tale of mistrust, benefit fraud, and beer

by Paul Light
Directed by Celine Griscom
Presented by Thespionage 
At The Pavilion Theatre

Brighton Arts Festival, May 1998

 Reviewed by G.L. Horton

 "Grief Encounter" takes its title from an epigraphic quote from Road Raging warning against trying to root out infiltrators, an activity that can "waste masses of energy and cause loads of grief".   Paul Light's entertaining slice-of-low-life is a political play of the "preaching to the choir" sort, in that its message is aimed at those who already accept the group's analysis of society's ills. Thespionage is concerned to rally the troops to effective external action while improving internal morale.

Thespionage usually performs in pubs, and that seems appropriate because "Grief"'s characters are all denizens of a local bar.  The (male) owner, known as Shit-for-Brains, is never seen; the place is run for him by two young women on welfare he has hired for an under-the-table pittance.  In charge is responsible regular Tam (Helen Kate), helped out by her dim but good-hearted casual assistant Jane (Alison Baker).  Both women are worried about maintaining their livelihood because  some new regulations  -- as a Yank I had some trouble following the alphabetical nicknames of British gov't programs -- are bringing about a police crackdown.  The bar is not only run by off-the-records workers who are also collecting public assistance, but all the bar's patrons are people who work while collecting assistance, too.  This illegality seems to be an open secret  -- the police assume that people drinking in the pub during work hours are scamming one way or another, but don't prosecute unless they can make use of an informer's testimony.  Particular targets of persecution are those who are suspected of organizing to oppose the new regulations and alter the governments economic policies.

It's difficult for an outsider to identify with the outrage on either side.  All the unemployed, or rather underemployed -- all the characters in the play, which includes a nurse (Damien Gunn) a prostitute (Katie Jo Symes) a junkie/dealer (Tam Fearn) and a handyman (Martin Hobbs) --- have a paying gig on the side; and all are reasonably healthy young people with no obvious disabilities other than the inclination to spend a lot of time and money on mood altering substances.  On the other hand, why should taxpayers or their uniformed representatives be so viciously eager to prevent the unemployed from doing irregular jobs?   Don't these citizens want to encourage the layabouts to gradually enter the work force and become taxpayers themselves?

Anyway, the point didn't seem to be to ask what improved economic arrangements might make for a just society, but rather how to keep police tactics from breaking up the natural solidarity of the benefit collecting working class.  The revealed answer is, "Don't grass on your mates, and don't be eager to believe that your mates have grassed on you".  The police's nefarious policy is to encourage paranoia and cynicism: that's how  they divide and conquer the people.

This moral was drawn from multiple scenes of low-life conflict and cooperation that unfolded in cinematic fashion, with much drinking of archetypal drinks and changing of stereotypical costumes to indicate the passing of time.  Too much passing of time: two and a half hours when an hour and a half would have sufficed. Performances were spirited and intelligent and within the bounds of a heightened naturalism (except from the actors playing police, who seemed determined to exaggerate sufficiently so that no member of the audience could get the mistaken impression that they thought policemen were human beings).  There were bright moments of authentic feeling shining out from their settings of serviceable satire-- lust, shame, sorrow-- with Kate, Gunn, and Symes supplying some first-rate acting.  But the most consistent emotion conveyed was "attitude" expressed in chip-on-the-shoulder prickliness, which served as a kind of talisman of authenticity, and as a test to be passed before a character could be trusted in further transactions.  Every one who was "nice", or who began with an appeal for empathy, turned out to be a lying manipulator out to take advantage.  Real friendship began after an exchange of of "fuck you, mates" on either side indicating independence and clearing the way for honest communication.
The Thespionage performance was a successful infiltration of a traditionally stodgy venue-- the theatre in the Prince Regent's Pavilion.  The mostly young audience cheered loud and long, and even some of the older folks stopped at the "Justice?" table to pick up leaflets and check out the scheduled demos.