Review – No Milk for the Foxes – Beats & Elements at Camden People’s Theater

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My initial take on No Milk for the Foxes was that it was not going to be a show for me. I’m gonna quote from the press release: “Through spoken word, humour, live looping and beatbox, No Milk For The Foxes explores Cameron’s England from the perspective of the working class.” Losing me a little, there, sounds like it’s going to be preachy .. “As working class artists themselves, the creators want to challenge representations of class on the modern stage and bring humour and humility to their audiences.” Aw f**k no way, the LAST thing I want when I go to the theater is to having someone tell me they’re going to “challenge” me and teach me some humility. Thanks, I got people at work that spend all DAY trying to show me how I’m under their thumb and when I go see a show I usually go to forget that, not spend 90 minutes having someone playing mind games with me because they’ve got something they think they want to prove. I just won’t even play. And if they’re going to be working so hard to show “the working class” on stage, I’m probably either going to not understand their accents or not understand their jokes. And rap music. Please.

BUUUUT … then I saw Matt Trueman’s preview of the show and I had a rethink. Trueman was talking about some things that have been pissing me off lately, starting in December with the bullshit about why theater audiences are so white but then carrying on into some very sensible questions about just what kind of people can even do theater given how you practically have to start out with a rich mom and dad to get into the right theater school and let’s not even start on how you’re supposed to manage those first three years of your career without just totally giving up especially if you’re trying to do something crazy like directing. Matt talked to the guys who created this piece, who said they were hacked off with the fact that when you see “people like themselves on stage … it often felt deeply inauthentic.” (Quote not them but Trueman’s summary.) So I’m not into seeing theater where someone is trying to teach me humility, but I am really into seeing shows that are actually trying to get it right. That’s what I loved about Good People – it was one of the first time I’ve seen people like me on stage: playing bingo, struggling to pay rent, dealing with violence and homelessness as simple facts of life. So I thought, you know, let’s see this show that’s about some people that aren’t on stage actually being on stage … and getting it right. God knows with my total confusion about the whole class thing here I wouldn’t have known getting it right from getting it wrong anyway. And, hey, it’s an excuse to break in the Camden People’s Theater, which I’ve never been to before.

As it turns out, this was a pretty entertaining piece (what I look for at the theater, normally), with the two characters, Mark (Paul Cree) and Sparkx (Conrad Murray), having a lot of fun on stage carrying on with each other, with the kind of silliness and camaraderie I’ve seen develop between coworkers at job after job. There isn’t really a plot, per se: it’s mostly the two guys just meeting up on shift and BSing with each other. Through the chat you get to know the two of them: their attitudes toward politics, Mark’s attempts to make a life with the limited opportunities he’s getting, Sparkx’s general indifference to work and yet odd inclusion in drinking outings with their manager. In between chatting segments (and making tea, and looking at the hole in the fence outside), they do little rapped songs, one of them making noises while the other talks. These bits provide some further illumination on their lives, especially their interior world (always hard to do in a play), but also some reflection on the world around them. In this sense it almost becomes a sort of traditional musical, or maybe an operetta, only in an ultra-now kind of way, because it’s not a GRAND story of A HERO and a HEROINE and OOH THE EMOTION but rather the flattened out world of every day, the small dreams, not the dramatic. People just don’t usually make musicals about these kinds of lives, or anything to do with these kinds of jobs (you’ll remember Carmen was not about spending months on end rolling cigarettes, even if that was most of her life), because it is really just so mundane and painful to grind through: but the rap really works to add the extra layers of reality on top. I liked it a lot, even though sometimes I couldn’t understand what they were saying (I’m not good with slang so this happens still). I think it could be the first work of an entire body of work done in this style, but time will tell …

Interestingly enough, it looked to me (from my seat three rows back) that Beats & Elements had actually succeeded at making a play that was attracting people outside of the middle class to the theater, because the behavior of the other patrons was such that I got the feeling they hadn’t really done this before. A couple of people were making commentary rather loudly about what was going on – albeit appreciatively, and I notice this was not carrying on a conversation but more on the line of “Uh oh, he’s gonna get it!”, comments which showed engagement – and also, well, standing up and taking off their coat and someone decided to get into a large packet of crisps or something at about 50 minutes in. It was the kind of behavior I normally find extremely irritating, but in this case, I think, you know, if these people are here for their first time – well, that’s actually kind of awesome, isn’t it? And the performers rolled with it pretty well and someone else shushed one of the loud commenters, but, overall, it was tolerable. Except for the person with the sack of crisps, that was driving me up a tree. But I liked that some people that weren’t the richy rich cats that come to the Hampstead (and snob me off) and all of the silver hairs that I see at the National were at a show, because to me theater is a public benefit that ought to be seen by people outside of those who already have more than enough disposable income to afford it. We need more stories about the rest of Britain and a little less bland entertainment or Shakespearean revivals. We need shows like this, and I’m glad, for once, we got one, because even if these aren’t people just like me, they’re people a hell of a lot more like me than the characters in Hayfever.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, April 29, 2015. It continues through May 9th.)

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