Photograph: Mark Douet
Janet Etuk as Grace and Sean O’Callaghan as Phil in Beyond Caring. Photograph: Mark Douet

During the pre-election ‘air battle’, zero-hour contracts were a hot topic. It is timely then that Beyond Caring, a play that peels back political rhetoric to reveal the realities of cleaners working in a meat factory with no fixed hours, has transferred from The Yard in Hackney Wick for a brief run at the National Theatre.

Designed to encourage a flexible labour market, zero-hour contracts force workers to bend over backwards to meet the whims of an employer. If you are young and lucky enough not to fall ill or on hard times – you might survive. But those in Alexander Zeldin’s play are the vulnerable, the poor and the sick.

The action follows three women taken on for a two-week job at a meat factory. They are bolshy Liverpudlian Becky (Victoria Moseley), timid Susan (Kristin Hutchinson) and Grace (Janet Etuk) who has had her disability benefit cut and has been passed fit for work despite having rheumatoid arthritis.

They join Phil (Sean O’Callaghan) a gentle giant type who buries his head in detective fiction and is on a treasured permanent contract, and manager Ian (Luke Clarke).

All the acting is strong but Clarke gives an especially good performance as Ian, the type of manager who thinks an extra 27p an hour and a university degree gives him the right to laud it over his subordinates with fascistic zeal.

He calls team meetings after punishingly long shifts (“I’m not happy guys”), prevents Grace from taking medication and watches porn on his phone all the while spouting an infuriating jumble of self-help clichés and managerial jargon.

Nothing happens, the days pass in a pattern of work and biscuit breaks. This lack of plot is consonant with the sense that there can be little progress for those forced to live in the immediate.

We learn little of the characters’ backstories beyond hints at private tragedy but again this is a reflection on the nature of their work, for how can human connections be forged on such inconstant foundations?

Tension builds as physical exhaustion and pent-up rage pushes the cleaners towards the edge. Grace’s muscles, pushed beyond their capability finally give in and she collapses over the huge concertina-shaped machine. Paste-grey water is sloshed frantically over stainless steel machines, but the stubborn smears of congealed sausage meat will not budge.

The cleaners are presented as ‘invisibles’ (Ian says the staff party will give them a chance to mix with the ‘normal staff’) but 2.3 per cent of the UK’s workforce are on zero-hour contracts. The barman at your local gastropub is probably on one, as is the Sports Direct cashier who sells you a bundle of socks.

What really shocks in this brutal piece of theatre is that legislation that values a business owner’s profit-motive over basic human rights has become so commonplace in modern Britain. Beyond Caring leaves the audience smarting – not just from the pungent smell of sanitiser but from the injustice of it all.

Beyond Caring is at the National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 9PX until 23 May

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