Wish List, Royal Court

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Nineteen-year-old Tamsin wants to be a normal teenager. She wants to go to college, flirt with cute boys and go down the pub. She doesn’t want to be stuck in a cycle of poverty that dictates she’s either doing manual labour at a “fulfilment centre”, or caring for her younger brother with OCD so severe he can’t leave the house. Everyday is a struggle to keep herself together since her mum died and British society has turned against them. To the wider world, she and her brother are tiny, invisible cogs in a brutal machine out to destroy the most vulnerable.

Bruntwood Prize winner Wish List takes a blatant pop at benefits sanctions, zero-hour contracts and multinational corporations that exploit the working class. Katherine Soper’s script has a clear agenda, but it bares its broken heart for all to see and asks for understanding and empathy rather than raging and shouting into the Tory ether. This sophisticated, character-driven play is a devastating combination of fragility and perseverance within a robust structure that withstands an emotional battering. Its message is a vital one that gives voice to those otherwise silent victims of conservative policy.

Director Matthew Xia and designer Ana Ines Jabares-Pita sets the story in traverse, with home at one end of the stage and the warehouse at the other. The staging is a canny representation of her narrow existence hemmed in by both places, as she doesn’t have much time or money to go anywhere else. There is nowhere to escape or hide. Her flat is small and simple, whereas the warehouse extends well into the space with its conveyor belts of cold, gleaming steel and cardboard boxes.

The cast is fantastic, endowing their characters with detail and care. Newcomer Erin Doherty is the tightly-wound Tamsin, so full of love and frustrated potential that she is always about to burst. She wants to help her brother and keep their household ticking over, so sacrifices her dreams and dignity to do so. It’s devastating, and all too familiar.

It would be easy to make Tamsin’s line manager, the unnamed Lead (Aleksandar Mikic), cold and corporate. Soper’s approach is much more nuanced – he is also a well-rounded individual that’s another small part in a massive machine that cares only for profit rather than its people. Mikic shows genuine concern for Tamsin.

The other two characters, her brother Dean (Joseph Quinn) and her co-worker Luke (Shaquille Ali-Yebuah), create a fantastic push and pull against Tamsin. Dean is incredibly needy and ill; Luke is the boy at work who fancies her and represents the freedom she doesn’t have. Her storyline with Luke, like the ending of the play, is a sad one but reflects the reality for thousands – if not millions – of working poor.

Wish List runs through 11 February.

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