Review: Life on the streets depicted in hard-hitting play on Stratford stage

Mark Spriggs as Mick
Mark Spriggs as Mick

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Streets Apart at Stratford Playhouse

Somewhere on a street near you a homeless person is sleeping or waiting patiently for someone to pay attention, perhaps to give a coin or two. Chances are we don’t give them more than a passing glance, so much a part of everyday life has the sight of sleeping bags or tents on the streets become.

But behind every person who is homeless is a story. It’s not one of greed, idleness or exploitation, as some say, but more likely one of abuse, loss or simply bad luck. Anyone can become homeless if things go wrong. Often, it’s the triple whammy of illness, relationship breakdown and loss of employment coming together that pushes people to the edge. This is what happened to Mick (Mark Spriggs) in Jackie Lines’s hard-hitting play Streets Apart, which unashamedly draws attention to the truth behind the façade of life on the streets. Mick was a plumber who had his own business till he fell and broke his back. Unable to work he lost everything and ended up sleeping rough, a prey to depression and drugs. He is broken, desperate for somewhere to turn, yet too angry to accept help. He’s not an easy person to get along with, but he is more vulnerable than a threat.

Or there’s Neil (Graham Tyrer), a soldier decorated for service in Iraq, whose flashbacks wrecked his marriage and who now can’t stop shaking. Yet he can still write and recite poetry, and when he’s able is a source of strength and hope to his fellows at the shelter where well-meaning, impossibly optimistic people work tirelessly to provide what little help they can.

To the shelter come Tom and Susan (Tom Purchase-Rathbone and Emma Beasley), young people who feel that they only have each other in a world that doesn’t care about them. Neither can read or write, and each has been told by their parents over and again that they are useless and a waste of space. So, they end up freezing in a tent, too traumatised at first to come to the shelter, but gradually lured by need and a slim thread of hope.

Streets Apart is a snapshot of a way of life that goes on before our very eyes, which most of us, lets be honest, don’t notice much. As a play it is unashamedly propagandistic. It wants you to look again, to see the person behind the figure, consider for a moment that they might not be there because they want to be, but because life can often be unfair, that the things that make it go well for some – friends, family, income, health, a home – can go horribly wrong for others.

Jackie Lines wrote Streets Apart because as a writer she felt moved to do something positive. The play is pretty bleak in its treatment, a relentless look at the drudgery of life on the streets. But then life on the streets is dreary; though it has its moments of hope and humour too. The humour in the play comes in Gill Hines’s Edna, a stereotypically dotty old lady who nevertheless helps out at the shelter and chivvies folk along with her grandmothers’ wit. The hope comes from the love shown by the shelter volunteers and the unlikely source of an allotment on which some of the people who use the shelter work. The generosity of a stranger gives them an opportunity to build something that lasts. In this case it’s a soup service, made from the vegetables they grow.

Never mind the details of how to sustain such an enterprise; it’s the spirit of the thing that counts here. The play studiously avoids the politics of homelessness, which some might consider a weakness. I think it’s a choice. There is tragedy here, and death too, but there is also life, something which the play relentlessly reminds us.

“We all need someone to hold / Life on the streets can be lonely and cold / No-one’s an island, or so I’m told,” are lines from the catchy theme tune devised for the play by Chris Musson with the active participation of people living on the streets of Stratford, as was the rest of the play.

The play touched more than a few hearts in performance because it got a standing ovation.