The plot of this play is brilliant: the private sector encroaches on the public, and starts ‘monetising social behaviour’. It is a threateningly plausible concept and, as Lustgarten’s well-shaped piece showcases, effects everyone who isn’t working in an ecliptic building inside SW1. Lustgarten pushes an idea as financially realistic and socially soul-destroying as those seen in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, but it is the second act that becomes less a performance and more a contrived lecture.
The play opens with sounds of riot, an obvious indication of the 2011 outbreak, then lights up on 5 business executives, who reveal their last names, their businesses, and their plan. Simply put, they transform social welfare, from the NHS to education, into a game of bonds and outcomes. We witness children unable to attend school because of their parents’ financial difficulties; a reward for criminals not reoffending, which ensures there needs to be a steady supply of -innocent- criminals that will never reoffend; an evil ‘tax-box’ device that is clamped to your home and shrieks until your debt is cleared, and a streamlined Social Services that won’t pick up an abandoned child because it puts the institution over ‘their incentives’. The constant scene changes, each one revealing a different face of the financial order, and a new victim, hammers home the terrifying simplicity of this financial supremacy: it’s financial terrorism, and it doesn’t stop for people like you.
If you’re not convinced this is a plausible narrative, remember that British Rail was privatised in ’93, Royal Mail is soon to be auctioned, and there is currently discussion over how large a role private firms should have in providing mentoring for those on probation.
So, the concept works, and it is terrifying. The acting – and this is all I shall say about it – was good, but dominated by the subtlety of Lucien Msamati and Ben Dilloway. But the play itself hits a didactic wall in the second act. What was an interesting investigation of the lives of the many, coagulates into an extended and unexciting scene in which all those characters we saw in isolation rendezvous and debate their rights and our future. Other reviewers have not reviewed this play well due to this. It must be acknowledged that in his introduction, Lustgarten explicitly states ‘at its heart this system of finance that now dominates us is quite simple […] now’s the time for the return of proper political theatre’.
This isn’t a play that wants to deal in theatrical slickness: it’s mission statement is to lecture and argue. The stage is spartan: chairs, scaffolding, and tape. On either side, there are costume rails and we can see the cast changing into their next costume.
But undermining this harsh realism is an awkward sense that this is Lustgarten’s dream world. We’re given a reality that’s part of his fantasy. Lustgarten is an accomplished writer and activist, and lines like ‘debt is our word for love’ are just beautiful. Yet this is all undermined by the tedium of the closing lectures – and a good lecture simply isn’t boring. I wholeheartedly agree with almost everything Lustgarten says – I just don’t think the final act is necessary.
The stark and threatening moments of the play happen in the first act. The second act simply belittles the Machiavellian situations of the first, and dilutes the play into a soft drink. Understatement is something Lustgarten can obviously do, and when it’s employed in a politically active domain, the rewards are colossal. Having my financially and psychologically devastated characters, whom I’ve invested my social horror in, suddenly convene in a fairy liquid support group just irritates me. I wanted more.
When I was contacted by the Royal Court I was told, ‘this will be a great play for students’, And it absolutely is. Whatever your stance, it features a vehement debate about the financial elite and social needs, drawing heavily from the city that is only an hour away from our university. It partitions London into the parasites, the vulnerable, and the hopeless.
In closing: this play is not inept, and although the cannon-fire of this play is powerful, the trajectory of it is not. Regardless, Lustgarten makes it clear in his introduction the play is meant to be jarring and informative, and the subject material will never leave a good taste.
If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep ran from the 15th February to the 9th of March. 3/5 stars.