Homelessness is a frequently seen, but all too often ignored, issue in London. You may be the kind of person who rummages in your pocket or hands over some food, but then what? Where does that person go to sleep, and where do they exist beyond your brief encounter? Smoke & Oakum Theatre and Oli Forsyth take us deep into this unseen world with Kings, which has transferred to the New Diorama Theatre following a successful run at The Vault Festival.
The story follows three characters, who have managed to find a secluded spot under a railway arch, here they have set up ‘camp’ and work as a team to beg for money and food. The initial assumption is that they protect each other and their comradery is unconditional, but it becomes clear any one of them would betray the others for a warm bed or a hot meal. When a charismatic and magical stranger enters the camp it upsets the dynamic and sparks a power struggle. Their ethos of relying on the kindness of others, shifts to a more militant stance with almost sinister undertones.
For a short time, it looks as though Kings will portray the group as a loveable bunch of down and outs which the audience can fall in love with. Actually, none of the characters are particularly likeable, with few redeeming features, but then why would they? In the brief exploration of their pasts it’s obvious that life has been nowhere near kind to them, their personalities now, are the result of years of being abused and downtrodden.
How quickly we get a grasp of the characters is partly down to the profound writing of Oli Forsyth, who has really captured the situation. Not having first-hand experience, I cannot say with any authority how realistic this scenario truly is, but it certainly feels as real as you can get from the comfort of a theatre. It’s also down to strong performances; as Caz, Madelaine MacMahon is filled with a nervous energy, she can barely keep her tongue in her mouth as it protrudes with a snake-like quality, and Libby Liburd captures the mardy Bess perfectly
The staging looks good with the set feeling suitably dark, damp and depressing, with filthy tarpaulins and torn sleeping bags the only source of comfort within the camp. The clothes too are ripped and worn out, in one scene the characters mend their second hand garments with thread and duct tape, this one scene alone seems to have the biggest impact on the audience, when you realise that they will have to make do with what they have, and buying new isn’t an option.
The ninety minutes fly past due to the writing being so entirely absorbing, it’s real edge of your seat stuff as you see the psychological power struggle and the ease with which betrayal can be employed as a defense mechanism. By the final scenes, what should appear as criminal and callous, is interpreted more as desperation; clear evidence that Kings allows the audience to see beyond the anonymous beggar and have garner a greater understanding of the issue.
Throughout its run Kings is raising money for homeless charity Centrepoint.