Feature: Knee Deep In Debt: The Unfortunate Lifestyle of British Millennials

Britain has a huge debt problem. As of May 2017, the average UK household debt was £56,731, and this is only going up. 14 properties are repossessed each day. The picture painted for the millennial generation is even bleaker: young people are unable to save due to student loans, credit card debt and overdrafts. One third of all millennials have less than a month’s worth of living expenses in their savings.

Barrel Organ’s new show Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here explores the depths of Britain’s debt problems, weaving their own experiences as millennials into a rare show that explores the raw, human impact of debt after the 2008 financial crash. Debuting at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the show has received rave reviews from critics and audiences alike and is starting a run at the Camden People’s Theatre, with a view to possibly touring the production around the country later on down the line.

The play challenges what audiences who are familiar with the collective’s previous work know. Barrel Organ’s two previous shows have had Ali Pidsley and Lulu Raczka directing and writing respectively, but for this piece, Joe Boylan and Dan Hutton co-directed a story written by Jack Perkins. “It just felt totally right and natural for some different people to take a creative lead on this show. I think people really think there’s a Barrel Organ ‘thing’ or ‘style’. But actually I think the basis of our work is something a bit broader,” Joe explains. “It’s funny because I think some people were foxed by this a bit: they thought Barrel Organ had a style, a way of doing things, stuff that ‘Barrel Organ do’.”

The show may have shaken up the roles ascribed to members of the Barrel Organ family, but Joe found that it made sense, that it was a logical step for a team that creates works that shift, and change even after a run – the Camden People’s Theatre run sees the addition of a new performer: Jade Ogugua. But this show, like its predecessors, is still the work of a collective that considers, accommodates and includes the audience, placing them at the heart of the piece.

Described by Joe as “a trippy weird Lynchian thing”, the play toys with elements of magic realism to convey a story that isn’t linear, or didactic, but one that tries to convey, “the feeling of this debt…how it can dismantle things and then, even after it’s been paid off, linger.”

A lot of research went into the show, with the collective looking at stats and reports published by charities such as StepChange, Shelter and Money Charity, all who have noted an increase in the amount of young people seeking their help. Furthermore, the current political climate, and years of austerity measures after the financial crash have led to a change in the type of debt seen in Britain.

People are more likely to owe money in the short-term – to credit card companies, loan sharks and payday loan companies, than ever before. “In the immediate aftermath of the recession, payday loan companies grew exponentially along with betting shops and often in areas where unemployment and personal debts were already high. This isn’t a rare thing, it’s happening everywhere,” Joe states. “And in a society that promotes and venerates the use of zero-hours contracts, we have people who aren’t guaranteed a regular wage, who are in precarious work. The “gig” economy, this precarious ‘zero-hours-hyper-flexible-work’ means that employers aren’t bound to the same forms of employment law, either.”

Known for not shying away from politically charged subject material, Barrel Organ tackle the current spiralling debt crisis with finesse – deciding to make a show that looks at the fallout of debt, asking: what does it do? What’s left behind after?

Joe explains that the story tackles the theme of debt in a roundabout way. “We didn’t want to make something that lays out the stats – if people want to they can do their own research, it’s alarmingly easy to find. Jack instead has written a show that explores debt via childhood, memory, grief and ghost stories.”

With the rapidly increasing costs of living and stagnating wages, the number of people in paid work having to rely on food banks to help make ends meet is indicative of a society at a crossroads. Debt is no longer perceived as something ‘silly people do’, but as a prominent issue facing many in the UK – Barrel Organ’s innovative take on debt, and the human cost of it, is a piece that is increasingly important for starting conversations, in a country where the most vulnerable in society are just one missed wage away from staying in the red.

Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here is playing Camden People’s Theatre from 10th to 28th October. For more information and to book tickets, visit https://www.cptheatre.co.uk/production/anyones-guess-barrel-organ/