The lights go up to reveal two kids swigging from a bottle of wine; a fitting introduction with a hint of nostalgia – haven’t we all been there? Kicked in the Sh*tter at The Hope Theatre begins as it means to go on and recounts a raw, honest but relatable journey through mental health concerns and welfare dependence in modern-day society.

A brother (Him – played by James Clay) and sister (Her – played by Helen Budge) are carefree and ignorant. It is our first encounter with the only actors to appear in the 75-minute production, and it sticks. The sibling’s bond rings of truth, with the characters exchanging jibes and using childish banter to skirt around difficult subjects. The lighting dims, an innocent melody plays and Him and Her reposition the set, symbolically traveling through the years with Her ushering Him along with some caring encouragements. The characters shed their oversized puffer jackets and transform into their haggard and exhausted present-day selves. The brother is living with anxiety, depression and possibly hypochondria, while the sister is single-handedly caring for her brother, her disabled mother, and her two young children. Her constant battle to keep the family afloat is made near impossible when their government support is deemed no longer necessary.

Leon Fleming’s writing and Scott Le Crass’ direction fluently explore fluctuating mental health and relationships under extreme financial and social pressure. Fleming weaves the story between a poignant, hard-hitting present and a light-hearted past; offering a background to their present-day problems and providing comic relief.

As the timeline flickers back and forth, Budge is lethal in her outbursts as her calm and controlled exterior slips away and the rapport between brother and sister unravels. In these wired and tense moments, we are forced to consider the misconceptions of mental health problems through the sister’s impatient and frustrated demands. The brother’s soft, tender responses are wholly appropriate to his helplessness and are artfully delivered by Clay, portraying true vulnerability and hidden strength.

Ironically, as Her’s mental state disintegrates, it is Him who uses this strength to support his sister. The role reversal is the turning point of the play and is made prominent through an imaginative use of the set. Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s design is simple but gritty, artfully reflecting the characters’ bleak situation. The set is cleverly integrated with the story, pulling apart and reassembling both in parallel. In an emotional sequence, the brother carefully and tenderly reorganises the large blocks to build steps, down which he symbolically guides his sister back to reality.

Whilst the set remains bare and minimal, the plot is overcome by an idealistic fairy-tale ending; the cold impersonal welfare cuts controversially appear to fix the protagonists and resolve some of their problems. However, whilst their social struggle persists, our characters are finally brought together again having rediscovered their support and understanding of one another that was lost along the way. Throughout it all, it is their strength and resilience that shines through, offering a message of hope in the darkest of times.

 

★★★★

Moments of tenderness outshine moments of despair in this ambitious new play. The characters are true and their story is raw and honest. An unwavering strength adds an unrealistic element, but ultimately, rather than depicting a family struggling to cope, Kicked in the Sh*tter presents a family fighting to survive. Fleming’s tale of hope amidst misery will dip your toes in the toilet, but you needn’t expect to drown.