In poet Jackie Hagan’s latest show, the title itself is a warning and the opening five minutes of This is not a Safe Space a series of caveats and disclaimers, at the core of which is this: talking about class is not easy, and nor is it quiet, polite or ‘safe’.
It’s even harder, Hagan tells us whilst acknowledging her status as a “wonky” working-class queer amputee, to talk about class than to talk about disability or sexuality. These are themes which she has been exploring candidly and to critical acclaim in her performance poetry over the last decade.
The fact ‘half of people in poverty are disabled or live with a disabled person’ is a disturbing correlation that could have us believing the future “looks grim”, but Jackie is not here to tell us sob stories that give us “empathy-fatigue”. She is here, in a brazen and brightly coloured burst of energy, to share truths, to make us think – and to make us laugh, too.
Part poetry, part verbatim, part cuddly toys, glitter and fairy-lights, Jackie has collated 43 interviews Nationally for This is Not a Safe Space, which she weaves between accounts of her own experiences. Hearing the voices of personal experience behind the benefit-cut headlines is an emotional experience, but yet a balance between harsh-reality and optimism, is handled deftly. Hagan is at once fiery and sensitive, she realises the truths of difficult experiences in poetic images which linger in the mind long after the voices themselves have faded away.
Hagan also experiments with some play and puppetry in the moments she is not speaking, using everyday items such as tissues she pulls from the backdrop of stacks of items that form the set. Although I am sure it is thoughtful, the voices themselves would be strong enough in isolation.
Whilst her poetry is beautiful, the piece is at its most resonant and engaging when Hagan is acknowledging the real-life community in the room with her, something unique unequivocally to the theatre that she won’t have access to on her YouTube videos and consequently takes delight in addressing. When the house lights come up, she encourages participation through the raising of hands and the sharing of packets of crisps. “I feel like I am among friends” she gushes, and it is impossible not to smile with her when she finds herself off-script and caught up in the emotion of the room.
What the piece does especially well is open-up difficult topics through her easy, ready humour. Jokes about humous poke fun at the difficult to navigate dichotomy between social mobility and remembering where you come from – I mean, who wouldn’t want to try a humous pot noodle? Whilst revealing that she still enjoys “Netflix… and lard” after becoming an amputee, sends up the unrealistic ideal of holding disabled people up to the Paralympic “heroes” we see on TV, which she likens to the corresponding extreme of the “villains” of TV’s Benefit Street.
This is Not a Safe Space is the opening show of Camden People’s Theatre’s new two-week Common People festival, a festival exploring working class experiences and aiming to tackle big questions such as “Where are the working-class people in theatre? ‘Who gets to tell working-class stories, and who gets to watch them?’. Hagan has set the stage and opened the door to this debate… but who will come through it, and where the debate will go from there, is left to be decided.