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Theatre Review: The Beggars of York

14th July 2016

Hogarth

by Rose Drew

Once upon a time, there was a beloved boy. He was clever, he was kind and could speak several languages; and he had a gift for poetry. And he had schizophrenia.

The audience is seated to backing sounds of traffic, pedestrians clicking along in heels. On a raised stage, a young man sits on a sleeping bag and peers at a book by flashlight; another, more rumpled man wanders amongst the incoming audience members, aimlessly folding and unfolding a Sainsbury’s bag, uncertain. He is wasting time. He is wasting life.

Interestingly, latecomers were forgivingly seated – when will society find room for the beggars of York? Perplexed latecomers could also have been the cast, too, we realise: any of us. In one of the neatest tricks I’ve enjoyed in years, this is made startlingly clear. Kudos to director Joshua Goodman, who claims ‘We needed to solve an issue of logistics and: we ended up with this!” This amazing device has reduced casting needs, but also drives home that destitution is not always the fate of ‘someone else’. The effect is so startling you actually think the character (a mean cop) has a secret illness or heartbreak…. It begins to almost kills him, the heartbreak, the pills he pops…. then he is wearing a ratty jacket and coughing. And he is homeless.

This is a tale about a young man and his friends, who drift through town and beg for dosh. Each suffers from mental illness (bipolar, depression, schizophrenia); most use alcohol or drugs to idle away the endless hours. They speak of a mythic hospital, staffed by ‘blue nurses’, with a back garden visited by foxes. They fend off bully cops and other bully beggars.

Every actor is so crushingly, humanely brilliant; every lost soul given a real and firm existence. Laurence O’Reilly as Paul is the perfect mix of vulnerable and survivor; Nick, played by Mick Liversidge, is the old hand at begging, reminding Pearl (a heart-breaking Beryl Nairn): ‘You’re too aggressive love, / honey the voice / soften their faces…’ Nairn is both sympathetic cop PC Smith, and the fragile, haunted Pearl. Joe Osborne bristles with self-righteous rage as the dreaded PC Stott, and the bully beggar Voakes.

The most startling actor is Hannah Davies, who plays The Chorus as an enraged conscience, reminding us angrily, ‘Move on / Move on, / BUT WHERE SHOULD WE GO?’ Davies is playwright Don Walls, livid at these abandoned lives, and Paul is the embodiment of Walls’ son Peter who died after years of illness, years of seeking solace in the streets; and Pearl, in a way, is Peter too. As we comprehend that illness, heartbreak and homelessness can find any of us, we begin to see that all the characters are facets of Peter or Don Walls (with the notable exception of the horrid PC Stott) prompting my daughter to remark, “I thought everyone was Peter.”

Do not fear being preached to; this is by turns humorous, brave, stirring, enraging. The poetry is wonderful: by that I mean both the poems that Paul shares with his mates and the citizens of York; and the play itself, described as ‘a play in verse.’ There is hope that BEGGARS will go on regional tour: Please.

THE BEGGARS OF YORK, written by Don Walls, is available in book form by clicking below: published by Stairwell Books: proceeds to St Leonard’s Hospice, Tadcaster Road, York.

Buy the Book
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