Mark Brecton's attractive new play shines a torch into a largely forgotten but intriguing corner of 20th-century history. Set in February 1938, the play is located in a Labour Camp for the long-term unemployed. Under pain of losing their benefits for six weeks, the "volunteers" would spend 13 weeks away from home engaged in heavy manual tasks.
The programme to Martin Wylde's finely acted and involving production points out certain affinities between this scheme and the Government's New Deal, but the play lets any such connections speak for themselves. Humanely evoking the grim pattern of existence in these camps and the contradictory effects they had on their inmates, it blows its chance of making a truly sharp political statement by inflating its one authority figure, Browning, into a melodramatically twisted headcase – representative, as a result, of nothing other than his own private derangement.
The Camp is at its best in the interplay between the three men who share a draughty hut in deepest winter. Aglow with keenness, Mark Frankum's naïve young Welshman, Davies, has never had a job in his life and desperately needs one. Without the respectability of work, he won't be considered good enough to marry the grocer's daughter whom he worships. His puppyish enthusiasm grates on Brendan Fleming's excellent McGinty, a cynical Belfast spiv whose shaky marriage and large family are suffering emotionally and financially through his absence. Completing this ill-assorted trio is Alan de Wolf (Dan Maxwell), an out-of-work actor with an acquired grandeur of accent and manner that doesn't quite mask his loneliness or quell the suspicion that, for this "resting" thesp, the slump is a convenient professional excuse. Their temperaments, ambitions and prejudices clash rewardingly as the play takes us through an attack on the officers' mess and the build-up to the inmates' concert which the authorities hope will distract the visiting bigwig from the less savoury aspects of life on site.
It's a great pity, then, that Breckon comes close to sabotaging the piece through the overheated characterisation of Browning (played by Ian Drysdale), the officer with whom the trio has to contend. Where the play needs an auth-ority figure revealingly ambivalent towards the men in his charge, Breckon gives us one ravingly unbalanced because (it seems) his beloved sister died of TB contracted from a down-and-outs' hostel. Hence, his mad nocturnal swoops to fumigate the huts and his dubious value as the opposition in this absorbing, but flawed work.
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