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'Beyond Caring' at the National Theatre: Welcome to the Zero Hour Generation

11/05/2015 23:56 BST | Updated 11/05/2016 10:59 BST

Ed Miliband, who has now gone to eat a bacon sandwich in peace, was asked an interesting question in the TV debates that led up the election. A man wanted to know whether the Labour Party was going to start putting business before gimmicks and soundbites. His concern was that a ban on zero hours contracts would stop him from growing his business.

That's the problem with the world we live in. How can wanting to offer people stable employment, so that perhaps a million people won't have to use food banks or 26% of 20-34 year olds won't have to live with their parents, be seen as a 'gimmick'? I know, I know, businesses are the best thing ever because MONEY and economic growth is the nuts and amassing shitloads of personal wealth is your absolute human right. But it's harder to stomach the use of zero hour contracts to enable all of these things when you think about the actual real living human beings who live their lives at the whim of profit.

Beyond Caring by Alexander Zeldin will introduce you to these people.

Currently on at the National Theatre, I'm happy to tell you that it's quite frankly everything that we need theatre to be.

If we want theatre to give a voice to the invisible and the marginalized, the fed up and the fucked over, then we need more theatre like this. If we want to understand that the erosion of workers' rights extends into the chipping away of their individual humanity, we need more theatre like this. And if we want to laugh and cry and appreciate how absolutely full of hope and resilience human beings can be when they are turned into nameless, interchangeable £6.31 p/h fodder, then we can't let anyone make any more theatre until they have all seen this play.

Zeldin and his cast immerse you in the banal minutiae of zero hour contract cleaners in a factory. Three new workers, Susan, Becky and Grace join Phil, who has already worked at the factory for two years. They are supervised by Ian, a tragicomic Gareth Keenan character, who thinks a clipboard and a supervisory position somehow set him apart from the others. It's harder to laugh at him when you realise that, despite the pleasure he gains from his power, he's also in a job lacking in stability and employment rights, and just as trapped as the others are. His wanky breakroom chat about spirituality and philosophy suggests maybe he wanted to do something else, something more.

Here, the term 'workaholic' becomes an indulgent one; imagine the luxury of being able to love your work so much that you never wanted to stop doing it - because for these characters, work is their life, and they have no choice in the matter. They don't measure their lives in coffee spoons, but 15 minute breaks.

One of the most telling moments is when Ian offers them more hours - but they're night shifts. Oh, and they start that night. "Gonna do those shifts for me?" he asks, in a patronising tone that could quickly lead to menace. They all nod timidly - except Grace, who replies that they should be being paid time-and-a-half to work nights. "No, it's not time-and-a-half," he replies. And that's that. She doesn't argue. Get exploited and paid a pittance for it, or be offered no work at all? It's not like she's got a choice in the matter.

Their work seems pointless - they wash a wall that will never get clean, scrub dirty boxes that are far beyond salvation. They have to endure pointless appraisals - dangled with the (not so) enticing prospect of a permanent contract for one of them if they perform well. Susan is told she needs to be more lively - because it's really important to display joie de vivre whilst being treated like an expendable nobody - so she then makes an endearing, hopeless effort to put a chair back in a more sprightly way. It's nothing more than an exercise in humiliation.

Every day is the same - Grace asks Phil what's happening in the book he's reading. Becky stares fiercely at her phone, avoiding eye contact with the others. There are newspapers on the table, but they merit next to no attention - no one talks about life outside of the factory.

It's a quiet play. People are too tired and too afraid and too disorientated to rage and polemicise at where they have ended up. There are no big speeches, no epic bursts of frustration at an existence that's had the soul battered out of it. But it's the tiniest things that indicate colossal tragedies here: the implications of Susan losing a pound to the coffee machine say it all. Phil locking himself in the toilet, possibly to privately fall apart as a human, and then being told it's being deducted from his lunch hour, says it all. Grace, deemed fit for work even though she has rheumatoid arthritis, quietly saying, "I can't stand up", says it all.

The play ends with Phil and Becky - two people who don't like each other, don't even know each other - having sex in the break room while Grace is asleep from exhaustion. And then we realise, this is Brave New World in photo-negative; these workers are striving for sensation in a way that can't be articulated. Their bodies, valued as cheap meat for the labour market, are the only thing that can remind them that they really exist; Orwell knew - you can't abolish the orgasm.