Katherine Soper’s Wish List is a modern tragedy and a blistering indictment of the savage side-effects of austerity, disposability and online shopping. It unsparingly makes its audience face their complicity in the impossibly unendurable lives of the brother and sister. Do we want to live in a society that treats people this way? And, if not, what are we going to do about it? Confronting in every way.
There are people at the top of this. And as far as they can see, they’re doing the right thing. They don’t see it from this – angle, they don’t see it from here because they just got numbers in the red and they work out how to putt them in the black. And it will be the same anywhere else you go. So you have to remind yourself that no one if targeting you. This isn’t personal…I don’t think they think about you at all. I mean – do you think about where your clothes come from? How much that child earned?
Wish List is a distressing theatrical experience. Nothing about it is comfortable: not the seating in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs where it is currently playing; not the depressing home shared by the two central characters, Tamsin and Luke, nor the even more depressing workplace (an Amazon-like online retail warehouse and distribution centre, where packing is rigidly monitored) where Tamsin works like a robot on a zero hours contract; nor the chaotic bureaucratic snakes and ladders game that Tamsin and Luke must play, almost every day, to ensure the benefits to which Luke is entitled are paid, so they can keep scraping along; nor the deliberately cold and infuriating lighting (excellent work from Ciarán Cunningham); nor the unsettling soundscape from Giles Thomas. Nothing.
Playwright Katherine Soper has penned a sharp indictment about modern life. While the plot concerns the travails of Tamsin and Dean, the point of the play lies elsewhere. It directly asks each and every audience member a vital question: are you happy turning a blind eye to the injustices that play out every day in the society in which you love? The ones that ensure the rich get richer and the less well to do get screwed?
In Pygmalion, G.B. Shaw critiqued notions of the deserving and the undeserving poor. Soper goes about the topic in a different way, presenting characters that it would be difficult for anyone to claim were not deserving of help, assistance, kindness, charity but for whom society offers no real prospect of even a tenable existence. Tamsin and Dean might be poor and they might be deserving, but there is no one to play the converted Scrooge to their Bob Cratchit. No one at all.
Soper makes you feel guilty – and rightly. The advance of the internet has seen many get rich, even more get complacent. No one notices the shop workers who are now unemployed because Amazon, Ocado and the like have dealt a death knell to the high street shops in many areas. People prefer the convenience and the low cost of online retailing, but ignore the real cost, the lost profits, to manufacturers, authors, creators, pretty much everyone who makes something which can be sold. As long as it’s cheap and arrives when it’s wanted, who cares?
As Soper resolutely clarifies – no one. Not the government, certainly. Not the online retailers. Not the people who shop online. In other words, no one in the audience.
It is near impossible not to feel a mounting sense of shame and outrage as Wish List progresses. It cuts deep to the bone.
Yet, for all that, it is slightly self-indulgent and this undercuts its thematic drive. In the end, it is simply too long. A sub-plot about an awkward romance outstays it’s welcome; another about a supervisor at the concentration camp workplace seems not to know whether it is Jekyll or Hyde. The focus of the story is Tamsin and Dean, their troubles and their desperate attempts to simply keep going. Soper could pay yet more attention to Dean, particularly, but also Tamsin. They are the characters who make the critical points – merely by existing and struggling.
Erin Doherty gives a quite superb performance as Tamsin, ever hopeful, but with the fear of drowning in debt, responsibility and loneliness never far from the look in her eyes. Tamsin is Dean’s carer – he has an obsessive compulsive disorder which seems crippling as well as some form of agoraphobia, potentially other ailments – a role which she performs with exacting calm but for which she has no formal training or support. Caring has been thrust upon her.
Doherty sublimely rotates the many facets of Tamsin, despair through duty and obligation to hope and love. Actually, she keeps most of those balls in the air simultaneously – as it is likely one would in her circumstances. The complexity and uncertainty of the character is crystal clear, her suborned hopes and wishes pressed deep down under a foam of responsibility and obligation. Doherty excels at the extremes, they seem unquestioningly, vividly, real; but equally she excels in the middle, quite grey, area of everyday disappointment. Merely opening an envelope full of bad news is done in a way which articulates pain and horror in brutal detail.
Matching her every step of the way is Joseph Quinn, whose Dean is a careful construct of fears, betrayals, anxiety and sibling magnetism. The compulsive aspects of Dean’s behaviour are conveyed in clearly thought through detail, a series of repeated tasks performed endlessly but with freshness – Quinn makes Dean’s routines seem utterly real, albeit terrifyingly intricate and absurd. A sequence with a red hot stovetop is, frankly, horrific but consummately achieved.
Director Matthew Xia does crisp, clever work, and the artful design from Ana Inés Jabares-Pita gives Xia a head start – from the minute the space is entered, you feel dirty, as if the engrained detritus of sad lives lived roughly could never be removed, even by Professor Higgins’ sandpaper. Yet, Xia also ensures that the love and hope which binds Tamsin and Dean is ever tangible, despite everything else that torments them.
As Wish List proves: it’s time society took a good hard look at itself and those who have been left to wallow in miserable inequality. Soper won the 2015 Brentwood Prize for this play. She was well ahead of the pack. She wrote Wish List well before Brexit and the Trumpery of the USA seemed remotely likely.
Eloquently and compassionately, Soper makes the case for a new world order. Her plea seems irresistible.