views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Etcetera Theatre
22nd August 2016


Publicity photograph for Witness

Photography © Shay Rowan

Why is it that we expect our doctors, nurses and care professionals to treat us with absolute dignity and yet we don't compensate them with the salary that sort of work should command? There have been an increasing number of stories in the media in recent years about care home staff who have let down their residents in the worst ways possible, however when we label this very important and valued work as low pay and suitable for the unqualified and uninterested, perhaps society needs to shoulder more of the blame. Philip Hawthorne's play Witness tackles the issue of how more and more often the wrong sort of people are going into care, and the shocking impact of this.

Having just returned from holiday, assistant manager Mariam (Veronica Caddick) is easing back into work by picking on new care worker Eliot (Dorian Hasani). The home's manager, John, is off sick and Mariam is determined to step up in his absence and make sure all is in order. With problems with heating, staff shortages and disagreements over catering, it's not exactly a warm welcome back. Mariam isn't happy, and with Eliot still within his probationary period, there's not much he can do other than put up with her moans.

Some of Hasani's early lines feel stilted and shoehorned into the dialogue to set up the story and get some of Hawthorne's political message across, but this does become more natural over the rest of the play, especially when Eliot starts to respond to Mariam's attempts to provoke him. There's a very genuine emotion visible as he attempts to make his stand. Hawthorne initially refuses to take sides, with both Mariam and Eliot having a certain amount of reason behind their respective arguments. Eliot is passionate about making the residents' lives happier and more fulfilling; Mariam is more concerned with following procedure to make sure no detail of their individual care plans is missed. Although there are frustrations on both parts, neither seems totally unreasonable.

A lot however can change in 90 minutes, with Witness being a slow burner. As the pair clash, we see their own agendas - well, primarily Mariam's - start to impact on the quality of care being delivered. As Mariam points out, some of the residents have a very low mental age, and we're always acutely aware that off-stage there are vulnerable people, whose wishes and needs are being sacrificed in this war between their carers. By the end of the play, we're angry, with Hawthorne having drawn us in part-way through without us even noticing, and made us impassioned about campaigning for change. Caddick makes a very good villain, with her very deliberately controlled, positively glacial demeanour.

It does feel like there are a few missed opportunities in the script - issues around religion aren't explored as fully as they could be. I would like to see Mariam's faith tested a bit further. Some of her statements aren't challenged by Eliot and yet they are very provocative and the playwright could do more here.

Witness would benefit from a bit of fine-tuning, particularly at the start. Nonetheless, it is an interesting, very topical production, which raises some important issues.

Witness opened on 22nd August and runs until 25th August 2016 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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