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:

York Actors Collective delves into zero-hour contracts in Alexander Zeldin’s modern-day tragedy Beyond Caring at Theatre@41

Clare Halliday, left, Chris Pomfrett, Victoria Delaney and Mick Liversidge in rehearsal for York Actors Collective’s Beyond Caring

YORK Actors Collective is following up March 2023’s debut production of Joe Orton’s risqué Sixties’ farce Entertaining Mr Sloane with Beyond Caring, a topical exposé of the social damage inflicted by zero hours contracts. 

Running at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from February 6 to 9, this “modern-day tragedy” was devised by Alexander Zeldin and the original Yard Theatre cast in East London in 2014, later transferring to the National Theatre.

Its story of agency cleaners at a meat-packing factory is being directed in York by former teacher Angie Millard, working with a cast of Victoria Delaney, Clare Halliday, Mick Liversidge, Chris Pomfrett and Neil Vincent.

Over 90 unbroken minutes, Beyond Caring follows two women, Becky and Grace, and one man, Sam (replacing Sarah from past productions in a directorial decision), as they confront the reality of minimum wage, zero-hour contract employment, never sure of how many hours they have to work, when they will be paid and whether their ‘job’ will continue.

“This play is remarkable in its structure and power,” says Angie. “It totally represents 2024 where many workers are on the breadline, trapped in employment with no guarantee of further work and no way to improve their position. 

“What drew me to the play, however, is the message it conveys about people surviving and keeping a sense of humour. I loved the intensity of the piece with its silences, its disappointments and its determination to determination to get pleasure out of the smallest things. It gave me hope.”

Beyond Caring was brought to Angie’s attention by fellow company co-founder Chris Pomfrett, who had played the self-aggrandising Ed in Entertaining Mr Sloane. “Following that debut show, our brief was to find something that would appeal to audiences as entertaining but also have an edge to it,” he says.

“I had a look at a lot of play synopses around particular subject matters, came across this one, bought a copy and was completely blown away by it. When it was first done in London, then at the National, it was described as ‘comically devastating’ and that’s absolutely right.”

Beyond Caring forms part of a series of Alexander Zeldin plays entitled The Inequality Triptych, addressing the theme of the impact of austerity. “This one deals with a group of people meeting for the first time to work the night shift cleaning a meat factory on zero-hours contracts, all employed through a temp agency with different arrangements for pay for each of them,” says Chris, who plays scarred, taciturn worker Phil.

“So they’re all strangers, and as happens when strangers meet, there are silences and awkward pauses, like in Harold Pinter’s plays, but they’re all full of meaning.

“Gradually, you see glimpses of their lives and their insecurities, and how that affects them and those around them, mostly adversely.”

Clare Halliday’s factory cleaner Becky and Neil Vincent’s manager Ian in a scene from the darkly humorous Beyond Caring

Chris continues: “I think it’s important for us to do plays that deal with these issues, as they’re still occurring. One of the things that has struck me, after Mr Bates vs. The Post Office is how a TV drama can have a massive impact on the Government’s actions, and that’s because people are confronted with real characters, and there’s an emotional response that you don’t get with news bulletins.

“The same goes for a play like this, and the great thing about all the characters is that in some ways you can see yourself in them.”

In Chris’s case, he can draw on his own experiences working in the community for the NHS (National Health Service) as part of the combined therapy multi-disciplinary team. “You can see the effects of the care system being shot to pieces,” he says.

Clare Halliday will be making her York Actors Collective debut after more than a decade of involvement in York community productions, such as the 2012 York Mystery Plays, when she first met Angie.

“I learned that Angie had created York Actors Collective and went to see Entertaining Mr Sloane, then heard they were doing Beyond Caring and auditioned for the role of Becky [one of the cleaners] after reading about the play and watching extracts from when it was at the National,” she says.

“Becky is a very resilient character, very tough on the exterior. I see her as a born survivor with ways and means of surviving, using her sexuality to get what she wants, in the only way she knows how. We assume she’s had very little education, and we know she’s a single mum, whose daughter is not living with her – she’s probably in care – but she’s trying to see her.

“I can relate to that, as I’ve had work insecurity and been on benefits, so at some points in my life I’ve walked similar steps.”

Clare now runs the Clare’s Kitchen mobile cookery school in York, being involved with schools since 2015.  “Before that, I was living in France, training as a chef, and I wanted to work with children, having been involved in cooking in the kitchen with my mum since the age of two or three,” she says.

“I work with Year One to Six children at Knavesmire Primary, Ralph Butterfield Primary, Haxby, Rufforth, Dringhouses and Lord Deramore’s. I’ve just taken on another lady to help as I’m so busy.”

York Actors Collective in Beyond Caring, Theatre@41, Monkgte, York, February 6 to 9, 7.30pm; February 10, 2.30pm and 5.30pm. Box office:

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