REVIEW: York Actors Collective in Beyond Caring, John Cooper Studio, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York ****

Chris Pomfrett’s taciturn Phil and Clare Halliday’s feisty Becky in Beyond Caring

WILL there be a more theatre-filled week in York this year?

A star-vehicle tour of Calendar Girls The Musical at the Grand Opera House is competing for attention with four York companies: York Light in Disney’s The Little Mermaid and, next door in the Studio, the Settlement Players in Rattigan’s Separate Tables, both at the Theatre Royal; Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company’s Kander & Ebb musical Curtains at the JoRo, and York Actors Collective (YAC) at Theatre@41, Monkgate.

Driven by her desire for more political, thought-provoking theatre in York, director and theatre critic Angie Millard launched YAC last March with Joe Orton’s Sixties’ farce Entertaining Mr Sloane.

Now comes a cruel farce, one highlighting the zero-hours contracts that have re-shaped workers’ rights to the point of having no rights, in Alexander Zeldin’s slice of agitprop, devised with The Yard actors in London in 2014.

Work 14 consecutive days? Like it or lump it, frustrated night shift manager and company mandarin Ian (Neil Vincent) tells agency cleaners Grace, Becky and Sam as they turn up for an interview at a meat-packing factory.

Grace (Victoria Delaney) is disabled, struggling with rheumatoid arthritis, but with her benefits stopped, she must find work, even though its physical demands could be too much despite her wish to be a team player.

Becky (Clare Halliday) is a single parent, with a daughter out of reach. Desperate for money. She  has a loose lip that can talk her into trouble and she is not afraid to use her sexuality.

Sam (Mick Liversedge) needs a job, any job. He’s nursing a dodgy arm, sofa surfing, “wondering how I got here and if I will ever get out”.

Phil (Chris Pomfrett) has been doing this job for ages. He’s bored, says little but reads a lot, a Dick Francis thriller at the moment.

Vincent’s smug Ian thinks he has Phil in his pocket. As for the newbies, rules are rules and Ian’s gonna use them, turning up like the proverbial bad penny, changing their shifts at short notice, putting them through job satisfaction questionnaires, looking through their bags.

What a piece of work he is, never lifting a finger, full of himself, conniving and snide. You would call him a pillock…and then lose your shift.

Millard had her cast members building back-stories for their characters, but not to be shared with each other, in a directorial decision that bears fruit in the initial awkwardness of meeting for the first time, before gradually getting to know each other, but not everything about them. This layer of secrecy adds workplace friction, but bonds build too.  

Sam nicks biscuits and tries to stay the night there, unseen by his fellow workers. Becky speaks to her daughter on the phone, out of hearing range from the others. Ian idles the time away watching porn on his phone.

The devised, improvised origins of this 90-minute play with no interval makes for raw, emotionally naked theatre in a series of vignettes that recall the agitprop insurgency of Scottish company 7:84 and carry an authenticity usually to be found in verbatim dramas.

Tremendous performances all round, both individually and collectively, combine with Millard’s frank, kitchen-sink direction to make you care utterly about Beyond Caring with its bleak humour, desperate truths and camaraderie in crap conditions. The coffee machine never works but the price goes up, just another example of what puts the grating into Great Britain.

Performances: 2.30pm and 7.30pm today. Box office: