Poster for The Nine o’clock slot. Courtesy of Ice&Fire
Poster for The Nine o’clock slot. Courtesy of Ice&Fire

“Welcome to the low-budget slot, the low frills, low grade, high shame, 9 o’clock slot,” intones the hospice chaplain John, having beckoned us from the edgy and industrial Red Gallery bar, through an ante-chamber of trees, soil mounds and angels, and on to the theatre, walled by versatile, but non-descript looking cardboard boxes.

The Nine O’Clock Slot is impressively conceived: the audience begin as an (unusually large) crowd of mourners, gathered unwittingly for a paupers’ burial. In a Brechtian move we are forced to confront the play’s themes head on, not allowed to hide behind the veil of disengagement that often typifies theatre.

Hannah Davies and Annecy Lax’s production with human rights theatre company ice&fire weaves through the lives of four individuals, all very different from one another, but who end their lives in the same way – an anonymous paupers’ burial.

Margaret, an articulate old lady mourns her husband Clive: talks, dances, drinks, plays cards with her beloved husband who is no longer there. This is a particularly strong performance from Anna Barry, who lights up the stage with her quick wit and jaunty liveliness. Whilst Margaret carries her own story compellingly, you can’t help but feel that it doesn’t fit in with the other interlocking narratives, though perhaps this is the point: loneliness, and isolation is all pervasive, and what typifies these individuals’ very different backgrounds and experiences.

Not all the acting is as sharp however, and the post mortem analysis by the mortuary assistants is not only gruesome but also does not ring true. They are talking to the audience partly, sharing insights: “Black pepper lungs tells me he lives in the city…Office monkey? Disaffected data hacker.” “This man was 278204 – the body of an unidentified male,” one mortuary assistant adds, as he peels back the skin of the imaginary body before him. The cruel anonymity of death in London’s underbelly is drawn to our attention, but the acting here is crude, though the lines well drawn.

Chu Omambala shows great versatility, playing chaplain John, the laddish Marcus, and finally a didactic auctioneer, peddling graves to the sombered audience. The number of parts played by a few of the actors also emphasises the anonymity of those passing under the city’s radar.

A highlight of the performance was a heated argument between John and carer Kay (Thusitha Jayasundera) about how to treat someone towards the end of their lives. This debate achieved that fine balance of narrative and didacticism – informative without being preachy, which some of the other scenes on occasion veered into.

Connor (Gary Cargill) is a charismatic, ebullient drunk who held up a persona that was angry, witty and lonely.

“None of this wanky, good practice, tick box bollocks”, he says to his carer Kay when discussing the end of his life. This relationship between carer and patient is raw and touching, highlighting the struggles not only of those whose lives are ending, but those who are tending to those ending lives

The play makes for uncomfortable viewing. Melding video, dance, music and acting, sometimes you feel a simpler set-up would be more effective. Scene changes and some performances could be sharper, but its message resonates loud and clear: thousands of people are dying on our streets, left for uncared for and untended in life and in death, and we prefer to turn the other way. The Nine O’Clock Slot urges us to do otherwise.

The Nine O’Clock Slot is at The Red Gallery, 3 Rivington Street, EC2A 3DT until 19 April.

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