Local playwright Dante Harker has drawn on his own experiences of unemployment and signing on in his new comedy play, Benefits. Set in a Job Centre in Manchester, it focuses on the staff, clients and somewhat fractured relationships within. Harker’s script takes the tried and tested approach of youthful optimism vs embittered experience, and it works well for the most part as trainee Grace (Lynette Campbell) adjusts to her new surroundings and the marked differences from her sterile induction.
Not helping things is casual racist Kath (a standout performance from Julie Hannan). Embittered, old and ruthlessly rude, Kath is on a downward spiral straight out of the door. With the matronly Jane (a marvellously unflappable Carolyn Hood) managing the Centre, someone’s set to be queuing up in their old place of work before long.
Whilst the comedy is there, and the plot builds up, I didn’t think that Benefits really got going until James Copestake’s scene stealing appearance as Bob with a gag that makes Benefits worth it. If only if had been this laugh out loud funny from the beginning then it might have had made a stronger point, perhaps one that might have given a more charming insight into a growing population in the UK – the unemployed.
Unemployment is a touchy subject, and it isn’t one to be made fun of. But it can be a relentlessly grim subject for a play if not handled carefully and as it stands, Benefits doesn’t really have any new light to shed on the subject. All the job seekers – sorry, clients – are portrayed as lazy nobodies. In seeking work, Kartan (Edward Hall) has become a tax dodger, whilst Becky (Abbie Talbot) is unnervingly true to life with a Vicky Pollard-esque performance.
It is a shame there is no-one honest to counter Kath’s casual racism and ignorance. Yes, Grace might have been through the system, but Benefits doesn’t linger on what her experience is like on the other side of the counter. In fact, it goes out of its way to question how long she’ll stick the job. This said, there are some interesting moments in store – the racist attitudes Kartan encounters from a British client is an surprising eyeopener.
It’s fair to say that Benefits is a mixed bag. Some strong performances elevate a script that perhaps tries to cram too much in. A potential love affair between security guard Martin (Thomas Ingham) and Grace is handled well by all concerned, but largely irrelevant to the main thrust of Kath’s downward spiral. It’s another good effort from the up and coming CTL Productions team, but with a tighter script and even more OTT humour, Benefits could certainly benefit from a second run.
The Fiction Stroker gives Benefits three strokes out of five: