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New play heading to Tyneside looks at what it's like to be broke

Personal and national debt are never out of the news. David Whetstone looks at a play which shows how it hits real lives

©Richard Davenport A scene from Broke by The Paper Birds theatre company
A scene from Broke by The Paper Birds theatre company

A play called Broke is coming our way and will strike a chord with all who have struggled to make ends meet – provided they can afford a ticket to see it.

Broke was devised by Leeds theatre company The Paper Birds who describe it as a “verbatim show that shares the real-life stories from the front line of poverty and debt in the UK”.

In the current climate of cutbacks and austerity, it could hardly be more topical.

Artistic director Jemma McDonnell, who founded the company with Kylie Walsh, says Broke is the first play in a planned trilogy about class.

“We wanted to talk about class because we think it’s still something that exists,” she tells me.

“We were particularly interested in the way a lot of blame seems to be put on people who are at the bottom and struggling the most.

“There has been a lot in the papers about food banks and we wondered why so many people were using them in this day and age in such a rich country.”

As part of their research, The Paper Birds people spent part of last year travelling around Yorkshire to interview real food bank users.

Jemma says they set out, as ever, with an open mind, not quite knowing what to expect. “But the people we did meet, who were at the bottom and struggling, seemed to be trying really hard to get out of their situation.

“This is not a play about people complaining or trying to get things for free – it’s more about people who are stuck.”

The Paper Birds also produced an online questionnaire which asked people to be honest about how much they earned and what they spent their money on.

“At least 250 people contributed and we got over 100 responses in a day-and-a-half,” reports Jemma. “People do have strong opinions about subjects around money and class.”

I wonder about the link between class and being broke because plenty of middle and upper class people complain about lacking pennies to rub together.

“You get some people who’ll say they can’t afford as many holidays as they’d like but that’s a completely different experience to someone saying they can’t afford to feed their family,” says Jemma.

The play, she says, focuses on a character called Sally and it is set in her son’s bedroom. Through her predicament, and using the responses of the real-life interviewees, the human cost of debt is examined.

Some of Jemma’s own experiences are incoporated. “I talk in the show about my mum and dad coming from a really big Irish family and me and my sisters being told about the importance of saving.

“I didn’t get pocket money but I got my first job at 11. As an artist with very little money I’ve coped really well but I think that’s because it was drummed into us that you don’t spend what you don’t have.”

Broke was premiered on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has been touring the country, even to places where you might imagine money is not in short supply.

“We performed at an arts centre in Cheltenham and there was a group there from Cheltenham Ladies’ College,” says Jemma.

“The teacher said it was so important for the girls to see this show because a lot of them came from privileged backgrounds.

“They were really emotional about the show and asked lots of questions.

“In Greenwich, because it’s one of our supporting theatres, they gave some free tickets away to people on benefits so we got quite a different crowd in there.

“It has been really nice to perform to such varied audiences.”

Jemma hopes there will be a second tour of small rural venues with the second play in the trilogy due in 2016.

See Broke at Live Theatre, Newcastle, on February 10 and 11 (www.live.org.uk) and at Arts Centre Washington (www.artscentrewashington.co.uk) on March 12.

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