Homelessness and Addiction; Wet House, debates and political decisions

If Kylie Minogue did theatre criticism, her comment on Wet House would be: I just can’t get you out of my head, Live your new play is all I can think about. Of course Kylie doesn’t do theatre. I mean, she didn’t even do telly that well and as for cinema…

…hang on a minute! Where is this going? I’m a writer and a supported housing professional. I should be talking about the homelessness and addiction debate last weekend. Why is Kylie involved?

I think Minogue snuck in because I’m still traumatised by the screaming Kylie-ites who surrounded me at a gig in 1990. I can hear them now! It hurts my ears and reminds why I never bought into celebrity fanaticism. A year later, at Newcastle’s much lamented Mayfair, I saw Nirvana. That memory is bliss. All smoke and awkward jumping. Well, you can’t exactly dance to Smells Like Teen Spirit. That night I realised how angry I was at the way society ignored disaffected kids.

Isn’t it interesting how clearly we recall the experiences that change our thinking?

Paddy Campbell’s Wet House is like that. Mike throws a chair, we flinch. Andy wrestles with a mop of cynicism, we shiver. Dinger despairs, we tremble. He dreams, we lift a chin in hope. Senses are touched, memories made, ideas stirred. So for that reason Live, Wet House is all I can think about.

And when our thinking is affected, we usually want to talk about it too.

It’s to Live Theatre’s credit that they created not only a magnificent play but also a forum for discussion. I’ve sat in dozen’s of post-show talks. The theatre company I’m most involved with, called Write on Tap, has made an art form of the after-play panel. But these are largely about the how and what of theatre making. It’s a lot less common to thrash out the concepts in a play.

The last time I remember doing that in earnest was a debate about mental health, following Peter Brook’s The Man Who (Mistook His Wife For A Hat) at Northern Stage. That was close on 20 years ago. It’s been a long wait till Sunday 29th September 2013, and Live’s debate about housing vulnerable people.

Naturally, as with all good plays, the discussion really began in the bar.

There, surrounded by alcohol supping theatre goers, I met an ex-homeless addict who hadn’t watched the second act of Wet House. “A bit close for me”, she said. Had the play been too tough, asked a nearby wine drinker? No, she replied. She didn’t need to see her life again. The rest of us though, yes, we bloody ought to. The wine drinker sheepishly put down their glass.

Show over, and Wet House was still punching its audience in the guts and forcing them to connect with chronically excluded people. So on to the formal debate.

Formal? No, relaxed. Dare we say democratic? Rosie Kellagher – who’s made no small contribution to new theatre at Live – chaired proceedings without a hint of “on message” orchestration.

We began with how the media treats homelessness, moved to theories of addiction recovery, the speed at which hostel staff “burn out”, bedroom tax, the need for good managers, the value – or not – of soup kitchens and emergency accommodation. We talked about Paddy’s personal experience working at a wet hostel, government cuts, and if Wet House 2 would show Dinger, Kerry and Spencer’s escape. As the audience joined in debate widened to more complex topics, like the morality of media responses to paedophilia.

The panel shared interesting insights, which I guess is easy for an interesting bunch of people. Alongside Paddy were managers from addiction services and day centres in Newcastle, a lecturer from Northumbria University, and a former homeless addict turned support worker. Together they sketched a picture of the wide range of organisations supporting the homeless in Newcastle.

Had we been in, say, South Shields, the list of services may have been fewer. In Derby, where funding for homeless provision has been cut by two-thirds, positivity might have been in short supply. Indeed the hostel Paddy worked in, and on which Wet House is based, wasn’t in Newcastle.

Paddy explained that he didn’t think all services failed. The one in Wet House did, and like the abuse of older people in care homes, that story had to be told. But in the debate it emerged that the original vision for the hostel was grand and good. Changes of management and lack funding had scuppered its chances.

Would there have been a different ending if Paddy’s wet hostel experience had been in Newcastle?

Newcastle has a proud record of supporting vulnerable people. One panel member, Neil Munslow, had something to say about that. Neil is the City Council’s Active Inclusion Services Manager. Great title that! Neil has another; Member of the Order of the British Empire. Not so good, although you only get it for outstanding service to the community. I’m fortunate to know Neil well, and his 20-year-plus track record fully earns that praise.

Neil’s view was that using tax payer’s money to support homeless substance abusers is never popular. It requires a brave “political decision” by councillors. The mood of the room was that they should be braver, in more places, more often.

Why?

The woman I met in the bar wasn’t the only ex-homeless person at this event. There were at least a dozen formerly roofless addicts. They spoke with passion about the changes they had made. “We can be as good as anyone else”, one shouted. They told their stories of fantastic personal change, name-checking organisations that helped them get there. Organisations thriving because of brave decisions made by the City I’m proud to call home.

In my last blog I wrote that Paddy Campbell’s excellent play was brutal, honest and gave a voice to the unheard. I should have said its also visceral, emotional, idea changing and memory forming. It is far more important to our culture than any briefly irritating Minogue-esque entertainment.

For Paddy, director Max Roberts, and actors Joe Caffrey, Eva Quinn, David Nellist, Chris Connel, Jackie Lye and Riley Jones, this a great achievement.

The extremes of the failing hostel in Wet House don’t politely ask us to consider questions about our society. They demand it. Live Theatre’s thoughtfully organised post-show debate gave us a place to answer those questions, and sent us away with one final burning dilemma. If every civilisation can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable people; how will history judge us?

By Ben Dickenson
September’s Guest Blogger
@benjitoon
www.writeontap.co.uk

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