Theatre, Gilded Balloon, Venue 14, 19:45 until 31st August.
Entering the small venue, I am assailed by sound: someone’s shouting into a mike, music is on, and as I traipse into the first of six or seven short rows of seats, the performers are already on stage, chanting their slogans, not more than three feet from my face. It’s like I’ve walked into a street party, a rap battle – or a protest, as the banners draped on every inch of the room’s walls, plus the slogans and the petitions, soon make clear.
E15 is all about protest, and is non-stop from the moment you walk in; it’s heavy going, but then so is the subject matter, housing and evictions, never likely to make for light viewing. With most of the script taken verbatim from participants’ own words, this performance powerfully tells the story of the young mothers of the Focus E15 homeless shelter as they resisted their eviction and removal from Newham, East London, to places as far away as Manchester.
The piece starts by introducing three of the E15 young mothers, all homeless due to a combination of difficult circumstances before they were given a place in the Focus E15 shelter. It takes us through the moment when all 29 mothers in the building, some with children just a few months old, received eviction notices and were told they would be rehoused in different cities, where they had no connections and support. The acting is great and convincing, and the storytelling carefully and successfully crafted to get the audience into their lives.
The mums talk of the impact of eviction notices on the shelter’s inhabitants, and of the moment they decided to fight back, not knowing how at first, but increasingly confidently; and of their occupation of an empty council flat that allowed them to give their kids the first birthday party they’d had. And they tell us of their successes forcing concessions from Newham council and its Blairite mayor Robin Wales: a number of homes in an emptied council tower block were reopened following its occupation by the campaigners, and all the mothers were offered rehousing in London, although several have since been evicted from these houses, too.
Poignantly, they also tell us of the winding down of their campaign, as they remove their banners from the venue’s walls, although they continue to stand in solidarity with people being evicted and to link up with other housing campaigners across the capital. And they talk of the joy the campaign has brought them and how they will remember it for the rest of their lives. Apart from the character’s introductions, their script is taken verbatim from the campaigning mums themselves, through a series of interviews FYSA theatre conducted.
Three other actors have roles in the play; one an awkward young man also from the housing shelter; another a homeless man who makes a brief and perky appearance from behind the audience to give us a glimpse into the life of life on the streets. “£20 a week? Sure, I can live on that”, he says.
The third is an activist from a local revolutionary group, whose entrance into the play is one of the only moments I don’t find compelling. While her first monologue effectively illuminates the gulf between her relatively privileged background and that of the E15 mums, and of class differences often seen in these struggles, she comes across as a little too smug, not quite believable; however her tale of her own act of dissent against the rich, when she shat in someone’s private swimming pool, does offer a spot of needed comic relief.
But her character also highlights the value of the right kind of solidarity: support and advice from seasoned, if often ineffectual, campaigners, without them trying to take over the campaign, gives the mums an important boost as they learn and build off their campaign.
This play is a powerful and necessary retelling of this story of the housing crisis and of an inspiring campaign that fought back against council and government policies that push out the poor and the shameful treatment of some of the most disadvantaged people in our society. If you have the chance to see it, you must.
Photo Cred: Tickets.edfringe website.
E15 is produced and performed by FYSA Theatre and is on at the Gilded Balloon’s Balcony venue. It can be seen at 7.45pm each day until the 31st August. Tickets are £8 / £7 Concessions.