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Review: ‘Unknown' @ Tobacco Factory Theatres

By Oscar Hunter, Co-Deputy Arts Editor

As I enter the intimate Tobacco Factory Theatre I am immediately intrigued. Created in collaboration with The Big Issue and six members from the community with experience of homelessness, ‘Unknown’ is RoughHouse Theatre’s latest powerful and true story. The stage houses a single desk, surrounded by box files and symbols of bureaucracy: my interest is piqued.

As I sit waiting for the performance to begin, I wonder if myself and fellow playgoers were about to see the administrative arm of the British state fail to save someone’s life. I was, unfortunately, correct.

‘Unknown’ is a play about the life of Ricky Webster, an individual who starts his life witnessing his mother be abused by the men in her life, and in turn he is also abused by those men. At 15, he is made homeless. Ricky has nowhere to go and nobody to go to, so lands on the streets.

We see Ricky continually go to the desk in the centre of the stage, which serves as the Board of Education, The Job Centre, and the local council’s offices. They all offer him the same thing, waiting lists, platitudes, and leaflets. The problem with all of these is that Ricky cannot read.

‘Unknown’ tells a story that we all know about but choose to ignore – the State is a complete failure when it comes to the homelessness crisis, and simply allows homeless people to die, rather than help them. Our actors do a stellar job at narrating the story of Ricky’s life, and making it feel gut-wrenchingly real, because it is.

The play highlights this by stopping the performance every 15 minutes or so to read from a large book, listing homeless people in the UK who have died, all with the name ‘Unknown.’ It is a harrowing experience, and as an audience member, I desperately hoped that our protagonist would not end up on that list, but of course, the play ends by reading out his death.

Actor Scott Baylis gave a powerful performance at The Tobacco Factory | Image Courtesy of Lisa Hounsome

The play also goes out of its way to show that this was preventable. Ricky asks for help from every government agency he can, but they all fail him. Every time this happens, we hear a deafening thud, as a box file lands on the desk, creating a physical wall of bureaucracy that, by the end of the play, makes it impossible to see the man on the other side.

While this story is not for the feint of heat, it is an absolutely necessary performance that you should absolutely see, you will not regret it.

Review: ‘I’ve been waiting’ @ The Theatre on the Downs ★ ★ ★ ★
Arts in Bristol - editor's must-visits

Featured Image: Lisa Hounsome

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