Fit for Work
Reviewed – 24th August 2019
“whilst one can’t really ask for enjoyment from a story like this, there does need to be a glimmer of hope, or at least a moment’s hiatus from desolation”
Five months ago, Terry Lawson (Jasey Ó Dálaigh) suffered a stroke, and since then his health has continued to deteriorate. Mrs Smith (Ciara Pouncett), a healthcare professional, is tasked with deciding if Terry is eligible for ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) or whether he is in fact capable of working.
The hour-long show consists of an interrogation regarding Terry’s physical and mental health. At first we’re uncertain if Mrs Smith is a sympathetic ear, but as the play goes on she grows steadily more passive aggressive, barely bothering to disguise her eye rolls as Terry explains his inability to walk more than 100 metres, and his growing depression and anxiety.
The consequences of continued austerity are of course an incredibly important issue, and writer and director Louise Powell’s ‘Fit For Work’ certainly rings true in the manner in which Terry is treated as suspect from the get-go; being asked completely inappropriate questions about his failed suicide attempt (a tactic that was reported in 2017), and made to present and detail his illness time and again.
But to have an onslaught of misery and misfortune for a full hour is a lot. There is literally no relief; no small joke, or moment of remembered kindness or love. We don’t even really get to know Terry besides his ailments. The entire content of the show is watching utter despair consistently being met with deep cynicism. There’s no real plot, just a chipping away at what is already a very small reserve of hope.
Whilst it might be an accurate rendering, and both Dálaigh and Pouncett fulfil their roles effectively, much as someone yelling for an hour loses their potency, having someone being completely miserable or completely passive aggressive for so long wears away its effectiveness.
The staging is an appropriately simple doctor’s office, with a couple of family photos and a framed child’s drawing atop the desk to remind us that even though Mrs Smith seems completely heartless, she is a human being who thinks of herself as a good person, which makes her behaviour all the more concerning.
There are a couple of sound cues meant to convey (I think) what Mrs Smith is typing in her notes: the first happens so quickly I’m uncertain exactly what was said. The second is cut short. And after both cues the sound system is left on for a good while, hissing white noise. I don’t feel anything was lost by my not hearing these so perhaps the show could do without.
Both the situation and dialogue of ‘Fit For Work’ are believable enough, but whilst one can’t really ask for enjoyment from a story like this, there does need to be a glimmer of hope, or at least a moment’s hiatus from desolation, just to give the audience a short respite, even if it’s immediately followed by an even darker reality.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Image courtesy Wellcome Collection
Fit for Work
Chapel Playhouse until 25th August as part of Camden Fringe 2019
Previously reviewed at this venue: