Having just been put through the grind of flat hunting myself, Ross Hatt’s skit as the zealous estate agent in We Know Where You Live’s first scene is a real treat. Ben (Matt Whitchurch) and Asma (Ritu Arya), a couple in their late twenties, are searching for a place of their own in an up-and-coming area of East London, and must now make it a home.
Writer Steven Hevey’s aim is to examine the possibility of true community in inner London suburbs. Long-term residents of the neighbourhood, Mary (Paddy Navin), Roy (Gary Beadle) and Keith (Daniel York), have formed a community association. Their lightning-quick bickering will hopefully lead to the reopening of the community garden, publicity for the local table-tennis club, and – most curiously for such an association – the demolition of old council homes to make way for the development of a vast shopping centre.
The Finborough’s space is always beautifully intimate, and We Know Where You Live is fittingly structured into scenes small in scale: cramped committee meetings and police interviews. But we learn about the community through the script’s dialogue, and it is therefore overly-laden with exposition. In one opening scene, Ben and Asma’s life stories are laid out comprehensively in what is supposed to be a conversation between a couple constructing an IKEA table. Too little happens in too many dialogue-heavy scenes.
This is clearly a concept-driven piece, and its concept is undeniably important for London. At its centre is the question: how do we deal with the unwieldy gentrification of London? The characters have been negatively affected by the area’s evolution in a variety of ways, and they have their own solutions to propose too. Roy hits the nail on the head just over halfway through, when with his calm and assured baritone he solemnises the sedimentary landscape of London’s communities: generation after generation claims the city anew for themselves he says. They disregard the traditions of the old guard and, once they’ve set up shop, scorn the innovations of the next wave while the landlords and financiers sit back and enjoy the fireworks.
It is also interesting to see Asma’s upper middle class perspective supported positively. She and Ben are only able to afford the rent with help from her father, but their arrival is at the expense of residents such as Keith, who were recently evicted from the previously council-owned building when it was sold off. Later Asma reports a shop keeper to the police for calling a young man ‘gay’. It’s one of her priorities to stand up for that sort of thing, but isn’t one shared by the local PC. Understandably, it is the murder of a young boy in the communal garden that he and his colleagues are focusing on. It doesn’t seem possible to support her sheltered and often naïve outlook, one that must be very common in neighbourhoods just like this. Nonetheless, it is one you don’t often see represented sympathetically on stage.
Strong in concept, but flawed in execution, We Know Where You Live is not the play that it wants to be. It is too heavy handed in presenting the different arguments at its core, and focuses far more on soap box declarations and philosophical discussion than plot-driving action. For the most part, the acting was not strong enough to carry a play that relied on its audience remaining rapt on the concept alone. It is an undeniably important subject that theatre should be broaching, and Hevey seems to have enough ideas in the bank to mount the challenge. But you can’t tell the story of a street through its residents if you don’t give them enough of a story to tell.
We Know Where You Live plays at the Finborough Theatre on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesday until 18 August. See the Finborough Theatre for more tickets and more information. Photo by Finborough Theatre.