Adam H. Wells, C Nova, Conrad Cohen, Edinburgh Fringe, Georgina Norie, Jess Courtney, Kerry Lynn Stevenson, Martha Wilson, Nottingham New Theatre, Revolution, Robert Leventhall, The Hand-Me-Down People, Theatre Review, Unemployment
[The following contains mild spoilers.]
Forget about the toys; this is a play about the debilitating effects of long-term unemployment and how dehumanising it must be to live indefinitely on incapacity benefit. The toys are all disabled in one way or another: Piper (Robert Leventhall) has lost an arm; the Witch et al (Jess Courtney) is a schizophrenic concoction of three different personalities; the Monster (Conrad Cohen) has more warts than menace; whilst the Doll and the Princess (Georgina Norie, Kerry Lynn Stevenson) have generally lost their shine. These people are now “on the shelf” – quite literally, as it happens – just as in “Broken Britain” whole communities have been deindustrialised and left to rot. And like Britain’s ruling class, the children who determine the destinies of these toys are “bloodthirsty and unimaginative.”
I have never regarded Nottingham as having a particularly notable university – indeed, before attending the Fringe I was not even conscious that it had a university – but you are always in safe hands with the University of Nottingham’s New Theatre. All of their plays are alike, even though they may be written by different writers and feature different actors. It is a strange thing. Presently playing at C Nova, “The Hand-Me-Down People” seems like an especially stark example of how the New Theatre do theatre. It is possibly the most New Theatrish example yet of a New Theatre play.
The cast and stage look magnificent; there is a gigantic music box in which an elegant doll (Martha Wilson) dementedly plays inexorable piano melodies; a green Frankenstein who probably came in a cereal packet; and a dead fly and a broken pencil which have assumed the proportions of permanent landmarks. Yet nothing happens. There is no climax; no revelations; no character or plot development. The toys complain about the “monotony” of being left on the shelf, and after an hour in their company, we can understand what they mean.
The play is virtually a hoax – perhaps one perpetrated by a writer (Adam H. Wells) who seriously despises Toy Story. “The Hand-Me-Down People” has the appearance of Toy Story, but the reality of Waiting for Godot. The performance is performative, in that it says what it does and does what it says. The toys have been discarded because they are boring, and once the hour is up we may flee from these hopelessly self-pitying and genital-less dolls because they bore us to agony. One idiot has actually brought her two-small children to this play, and the little girl is squealing with exasperation half way through. It is a pity that she cannot understand the irony.
The irony is that we could all have lives like these. Tens of thousands of people already do. And on this occasion we will only get to see how grim and demoralising such lives can be because those who live them have been disguised as toys and smuggled on stage in the course of a theatrical fantasy. By the end of the play, some of the toys have been driven to suicide (this never happened in Toy Story), but the alternative is self-evident. They need a revolution. Not necessarily a bloody uprising against the children who have forgotten them, but a determination to create new stories and lives for themselves. In other words, these are has-beens in search of a new theatre.