I don’t think I’m alone in saying I’m sick to death of hearing about Brexit. When the brash opening of Us Against Whatever ricochets across Hull Truck’s auditorium and the word punctuates the air, I must admit to sinking into my seat. No more, I want to sob, for God’s sake not another dramatization of the political turmoil that Britain currently sits in the eye of. However, to think that Middle Child’s tackling of the subject would be so crude, is a grave mistake to make. This play drops the beat on Brexit, heaves the politics into the beating heart of the city that voted overwhelming in favour of it.
The nature of the work that Middle Child do, in solidifying their own brand of gig theatre is to create theatre that is truly immersive. When Emma Thornett’s MC addresses the crowd, we become active. She forcefully encourages us to applaud, to sing along, to wave flags and to laugh. With white gloved hands she refers to “our city”, invites each person to be a part of the story. Even those that don’t find themselves lucky enough to be picked for the intermission Karaoke performance will find it hard not to feel like they are in the bar with the characters, listening to them sing, cry and fall in love.
It would have been startlingly easy for Maureen Lennon to write a play about division here, but she resolutely does the opposite. The first act of the play, especially, is a startling tribute to Hull’s unity, to togetherness. The cast are lit and dressed by Jess Addinall and Bethany Wells in black, white and amber: football colours. Instead of arguing the small points of politics, the narrative runs us back to Hull City’s entry to the premier league. Different communities are united in that same feeling of hope and home.
The clean polished clockwork of the first act is then subverted and smudged in the second in such a way as to leave the audience stunned and subdued. Celebration is inverted, unity pushed outwards.
Paul Smith’s direction aids this beautifully. The staging is indulgently performative yet edged in whip-crack satire. The mining of theatrical convention is expertly played. Despite this, the stylistic commitment never dampens the force of the human story. Smith makes great use of silence. The pacing of the show is musical in itself, allowing the audience to give in to the feeling of it.
We do not hear the politics so much as experience the politics through the people. When Josie Morley’s Steph goes head to head with Severine Howell-Meri’s Tara and Edyta Budnik’s Anna, we feel their respective frustrations. We have travelled with each of them, we do not hear their opinions in isolation but see them through the lens of their experience. Refusing the dichotomy opens us up to sympathy. The call for hope comes from voices wracked with tears.
It is James Frewer’s score that ties all of this together. The use of music awakens emotion, it echoes in our minds even as we leave the theatre. In this case, Daniel Denton has also contributed projections, lit across Well’s tinselled sunrise set. These slide under the music and spoken word, they subtitle lines in Polish. Words that are implicit breathe into the gaps between bars in white text. It’s innovative and makes this play much more accessible to a wider audience.
Us Against Whatever captures the grim optimism of Hull. It sings a refrain of hope even as it calls out from a place of despair. As an audience, we are asked to abandon passivity and to reach out to one another to hold on and remember the things that unite us. Throughout this performance, we weep for hope, for grief and for all the broken promises left on every doorstep in the country. I can’t help feeling that this is exactly the play about Brexit that we need right now, complex, layered and ultimately forgiving.
Us Against Whatever is touring until 3 April. For more information and tickets see the Middle Child Theatre website.