Food Bank As It Is recounts a number of real-life stories about food bank users, presented as a series of interconnecting monologues and scenes which are part-verbatim, part-fiction. Written by former food bank manager Tara Osman, the production presents a very bleak image of 21st century Britain following a decade of austerity.
Each member of the cast has been directly involved in food bank use in some way, and the production is clearly fuelled by anger and frustration with a system that does little to support the most vulnerable in our community. I wholeheartedly salute this collective for collaborating to transform their struggle into something creative that addresses the injustice and pain they’ve both witnessed and experienced.
However, there are some issues with the content and performance of Food Bank As It Is which are hard to ignore, and that are significant because they present barriers to fully realising its aims in exposing and critiquing a very serious and urgent issue.
Whilst it’s not explicitly stated the cast are non-professionals, this becomes apparent very quickly. Interesting dramatic nuances do arise from this: there is an authentic vulnerability to the presentation and a shyness to the delivery which makes you lean in to listen to their accounts. You cannot sit back and be passive, you reach out to them to engage with what they are saying. However, on a practical level, it is sometimes genuinely difficult to hear the text, and the characterisations are flimsy and mostly unconvincing.
Theatre is often best-employed when it is used to tell the story rather than present the facts. We hear lengthy monologues based on email chains between service users and various facets of the establishment that describe their (admittedly deeply troubling) experiences, when, perhaps seeing the reality of the impact of such exchanges might have better penetrated the horrors of the situation.
A series of phone calls that Osman’s fictional self makes on behalf of service users is an attempt to dismantle how inadequate the system is in terms of accessing support. However, the presentation of call centre workers as lazy and disinterested does little to critique the structures which are the insidious root of the problem. In some sense, this actively distracts from the production’s message. Presenting the problems through a single lens does nothing to interrogate how and why we got here, and where we might go now.
Following the play, the cast facilitated an audience debate around the issue of food banks, with a view to create a series of take-home actions. I assume this was an imitation of forum theatre, but without expertise informing this approach, I found it an uncomfortable experience (for all the wrong reasons). There was no nuance and very little structure to the debate, and the facilitators seemed uninformed as to how one might approach an open discussion with a view to enacting social change.
One cannot deny Food Bank As It Is presents a broken society, illuminating a brutal reality and necessity for drastic structural change. However, it fails – in its existing form – to interrogate the cause or the effect, instead simply presenting the situation in a one-dimensional frame. Because I believe it’d be better billed as community-led creative action than theatre, I’ve decided to not give it a ‘star rating’. If the collective’s desire is to become the latter, I think collaborating with someone with specific expertise as to how to elevate the production to inspire effective change would be a brilliant next step.