The streets are empty and all we see is a deserted English main street in the opening of Jo Emery’s Rough Sleeper. The filmed version of the play which premiered in 2019 is directed by Ian Hylands and presented by the Actors Centre. Developed in association with Crisis, it tells the story of homelessness; of what it means to be a rough sleeper in England and how our protagonist got to where he is.
The man (Haydon Davis) has been a rough sleeper for a few years now. Sleeping, people watching, and drinking make up most of his days and if he is lucky, he finds 50 quid in his coffee cup at the end. The council has it out for him; they do not want homeless people tainting the flawless image of their beautiful city. Unfriendliness and hostility accompany his everyday life and friends are hard to find when you’re fighting for bare survival.
He doesn’t share his troubling story on his own accord. In the early hours of the morning, he is approached by a woman (Jo Emery) who is writing a play – as we later find out. It doesn’t take much incentive for him to open up. He has hardly ever told anyone his story in this scope, but he has nothing to fear. As he proudly proclaims, he is not an illegal immigrant nor a criminal. He fell from the very top all the way to rock bottom.
Rough Sleeper touches on important topics. In detail, we gain insight into homelessness and what it is like to lose everything. The cinematic play gives a face and a voice to the countless people on England’s streets and shows that prejudices dehumanise people to a disheartening extent.
However, that is unfortunately as much as Rough Sleeper has to offer. Stagnant and detached from his character’s story Davis shuffles back and forth on the makeshift bed as he delivers his monologue. Sadly, it is nothing more than a monologue – a stream of words that fail to pull me in and feed my curiosity. Davis’ delivery stays on the same note throughout the hour only interrupted by a few theatrical sobs and coughs (hopefully not tuberculosis). Why Emery shows up in her play in the first place is anyone’s guess as the monologue would’ve been perfectly fine on its own without two generic questions from her to trigger it.
The digitalised version of Rough Sleeper presents no more than Davis’ delivery of an unfortunate human story captured in a static frame, supported with the occasional, random close-up. As much as the tale itself offers, the production does not manage to explore its full potential and fails to do as intended: to serve as “a reminder that the system isn’t working”.
Rough Sleeper is playing online at the Actors Centre until 19 September 2021. For more information and tickets visit the Actors Centre website.