This time last week I’d just been to see Middle Child’s Us Against Whatever directed by Paul Smith play about Brexit. Was it really about Brexit? Sorta, it was really more about Hull. It began as a love letter to the Hull we used to know, complete with the fatalism, fiercesome pride and the football. You don’t like football. No, but I can appreciate the power of an emblem that people get behind. The football and that particular match in the play off final 2008 was a moment of change, about things getting better for the city if they had a team in the Premiership: and all the expected riches and rewards that would bring. The responsibility for all the hopes and dreams of the entire city rested on one man Dean Windass.
Musical Director James Frewer transforms the Dean Windass goal into something divine: making him already a household name, into a saint. Dean Windass as a totem for change, a symbol of hope, Dean Windass will lift you up from the gutter and help you believe that anything is possible. It is quite a stretch for a non-football fan but I guess if you were there… watching the ball fly from his boot into the back of the net, it might just have felt like Hull’s time had finally come. Steph’s dad played by Josh Meredith believes it to be true. And so does everybody else who is there in pub watching the 1 – 0 win over Bristol City.
There won’t be many musicals with a number dedicated to the Sky Sports match clock: brilliant that. Another standout musical moment was the one about wearing black… that one had solemnity and real heart.
The football narrative echoes other promises of big change to the city, like the expectations of renewal from City of Culture, touched upon but not dwelled upon by Us Against Whatever writer Maureen Lennon. The ‘ticking of the clock’ refrain indicates the passing of time and we get to the referendum.
That goal, that day of hope comes to nothing like everything else, a brief stint in the spotlight then back to obscurity. In Hull manufacturing gives way to service industries and Steph’s Dad is laid off, put on the scrapheap before his time. Poverty comes a knocking along with a touch of the I Daniel Blakes.
There can be no surprise that Hull would become Brexit heartland when in the noughties commentators in the south, suggested we should be abandoned to our fate.
Right here is where that staunch loyalty to the city is felt by Steph portrayed so winningly by Josie Morley. I understand her resistance to change, the fact she wants to stay in Hull, not disappear off to Leeds like her aspirational best friend Tara played by Sèverine Howell-Meri. What did Leeds vote anyway? I get it all too well, Hull might be poor and dead end and all that, but its ours and we’ll fight for it with our dying breath. With the referendum choice Steph says over and over again that for once ordinary working class folk were asked, folk like her, she was asked. I get that too and Hull votes 68% to leave the EU, seeds of division sown right across the city, fuelled by lies from politicians, people fooled by slogans on the sides of busses. And the city just became a whole lot less safe for minorities.
The ‘cabaret’ in the title was indicative of the visual design by Bethany Wells and the sexy, camp, glam, vintage styled costumes, the painted faces with bright red lipstick and panda eyes. A towering performance by Emma Thornett as the MC who kept the cast and the audience in line with a sharp tongue and a loving glare. The karaoke element was a neat way to give the audience, an instant impression of a character, you felt you knew something about them from their song choice. I liked that.
I really enjoyed Us Against Whatever and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It struck me that the presence of the beer swilling nationalism, where some think they are justified to lay hands on someone else and yell ’Speak Fucking English’ and ‘Go Back Home’, the rise of which is now blamed on the Brexit vote. Well, all that existed long before in cities right across the country. It has been given more prominence with rhetoric about taking back control, echoing conservative ideology of reverting to a past version of Britain where you could leave your door open, everyone knew everybody else in the street, and the threat of war lay on the doorstep, along with the milk.
The most uncomfortable moment for me, the one I keep coming back to is where Anna Polish degree student played by Edyta Budnik, is told that despite her qualifications people like her – meaning foreigners – only do menial jobs, while some thick-skulled jobsworth a candidate for diversity awareness if ever there was one, tells her she’s signing her up to be a cleaner. Another bitingly satirical song follows. She is royally humiliated and the final moment in this brief but pivotal scene for me, is so distressing: akin to a prisoner having their head shorn.
Not so much a review but a collection of thoughts, still buzzing around my head a week later, trying to find a place to fit together. It could be the most important play you’ll ever see and while Brexit drags on, bringing the country to its knees you may find some respite in Middle Child’s defiant Us Against Whatever.
Picture by Sam Taylor: front Edyta Budnik bk L to R Joshua Meredith, Josie Morley and Sèverine Howell-Meri