Play shining a light on Welfare Reform performs at the Playhouse

Cast members on stage during an emotional performance at 'Entitled.'
Cast members on stage during an emotional performance at 'Entitled.'

Giving voice to the reality of welfare reforms, MACHA Productions’ new play by Fionnuala Kennedy is coming to The Playhouse on Saturday evening.

ENTITLED shines a light on the uncertainty that surrounds Northern Ireland’s welfare reform policies and mitigations. Having played to audiences in Belfast, Bangor and Newry, it finishes it short tour in Derry’s Playhouse at 6.30pm tomorrow (Saturday).

First night audiences have described the play as “powerful”, “gripping”, “emotive”, “intense” as well as “angry”. One audience member said that ENTITLED “was what theatre should be: critical and a little bit political.”

Writer and co-founder of MACHA Productions Fionnuala Kennedy said: “We’ve created a new piece of theatre to try to show the desperation facing people who are impacted by these cuts that are designed to propel people into extreme poverty and difficulty.”

The narrative from the NI Executive is that “Northern Ireland got a better deal than the rest of the UK.” But that isn’t what the team behind ENTITLED heard when they spoke to workers in the social sector and people on the street. Some weren’t yet aware of how their benefits would change. Others had received letters about the bedroom tax that’s not even supposed to affect Northern Ireland.

Fionnuala is no stranger to theatre that tackles social injustice, having previously written work focusing on homelessness, racism and homophobia. She explained: “We’ve interviewed people whose benefits will be affected and the terrifying thing is that they aren’t aware how or when or how. People are lost. This causes not only hardship but distress at an already difficult time.”

“Each performance is followed by input from someone affected by the reforms, working in the sector or a politician before the audience vote on the nightly referendum. We want to use this piece of theatre to challenge our politicians about what they plan to do. It is our argument that the so-called welfare reform mitigations are not enough, that it is not acceptable for us to pat ourselves on the back because less people will suffer than in the UK.

“We want to encourage everyone to hold their politicians to account by using their voices and their votes.”

Advice NI will also be present in the Playhouse tomorrow to offer independent advice before and after the performances. Kevin Higgins is head of policy at Advice NI and was part of the Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group. He said: “Welfare reform continues to create a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety for many across Northern Ireland. We need to understand more about the realities of life for people struggling on social security and we need to understand the profound impact of the welfare changes including harsher benefit sanctions, the reassessment of disability benefits and the freeze in benefit rates on households across Northern Ireland.”

Kevin added: “It is hoped that the free Independent Welfare Changes Helpline (0808 802 0020) will go some way to making the changes to the system less frightening and more manageable for those affected.”

Gilly Campbell, Arts Development Officer for Drama and Dance at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland added: “ Fionnuala Kennedy is an artist of serious talent and a unique voice in Northern Ireland theatre. ‘Entitled’ is a terrific example of the arts being used as a useful tool in stimulating discussion around difficult subjects. The impressive production also has a high level of community engagement and the Arts Council is delighted add our support.”

Cast members Bernadette Brown (The People of Gallagher Street), Caroline Curran (50 Shades of Red, White & Blue) and Louise Mathews (Hostel) will be joined on stage by 12 members of MACHA Community Cast who have received a year and a half of free drama training and come from the Derry, Dublin, Belfast, North Down, New Zealand and Argentina.

Alexander Cambridge is a member of the community cast. He said:

“Building a better future starts with seeing to everyone’s need. I’m originally from New Zealand and am delighted to be part of the cultural life of Northern Ireland. Welfare reform affects everyone and the concerns are universal. If we all address the needs of our communities it helps us to all stay together.”

MACHA Productions receives support from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and Belfast City Council. Writer Fionnuala Kennedy is part of Prime Cut Productions’ REVEAL Programme (funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation).

Tickets are free and can be booked by emailing MachaProductions2015@gmail.com or else show up on the night when seats will be allocated on a first come first served basis.