By Thomas Foster
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2867

New play takes a stab against gentrification

Play takes the audience on a journey down the Grand Union Canal in east London to tell a story of mental distress and gentrification
Issue 2867
Union gentrification

Saskia played by Dominique Tipper stars alongside Andre Bullock playing various parts in Union

Union, a new play written by Max Wilkinson and directed by Wiebke Green, documents the impact of gentrification—how it suppresses differences and tears communities apart. 

The play follows Saskia, a property developer, as she walks away from completing a property deal to gentrify Park Royal in west London.  She embarks on a run home to Hackney, east London, along the Grand Union Canal.

Along the way she ­encounters people affected by gentrification. These include a homeless person reminiscing about past communities and an elderly woman whose gas has been turned off because she can’t pay the bills.  She also encounters two people speaking about dubiously named community projects gifted by corporate developers that are unaffordable for anyone to buy. 

As she runs, Saskia’s mental health worsens. She is triggered by the recent loss of a childhood best friend, and her stress is only made worse by constant phone calls from her boss, Fraser.  Fraser, who expresses his desire to “put a Pret on the moon”, has nothing in his sights but making more profits. 

The real purpose of ­gentrification becomes steadily clearer as the play progresses.  It’s meant to sweep away any community spaces or cultural elements that do not fit neatly into the categories created by the rich and corporations. 

The conclusion of this vision is segregation between the impoverished and the affluent, creating spaces where only the wealthy are welcome.  The displacement of the working class from their homes is a product of capitalist rationality. 

As Saskia runs, recognition of her role in gentrification grows in tandem with her deepening mental distress. Her role at her company is to persuade local communities of the benefits of development and she is supposed to win locals over with promises of community centres and parks.

Empty gestures are used to secure working class support—a tale as old as time.  Coming from a poorer background, Saskia’s motivation to “be successful” was instilled in her by her mother. 

This drive to be ­successful in a capitalist world while growing up poor leads Saskia to have contradictory ideas.  She has a degree of class consciousness and feels solidarity with working people, but is also pulled in the other direction by the bosses. 

The contradictions in her ideas between wanting to be successful and growing up poor weigh heavily on her, and attempted reconciliation of the two becomes ever harder.  It becomes evident that the mental distress she is experiencing has its roots deeply set in the way the system works. The form of the play is minimalistic, with the set design that is equally functional. 

This is a three-actor show. Saskia is played by Dominique Tipper, with Andre Bullock and Sorcha Kennedy playing all the other characters.

Bullock and Kennedy excel in their different roles, creating nuanced interactions with the protagonist Saskia. 

The writing is fast paced and energetic, with the script covering an array of narratives and discussions.  The primarily minimalistic set that prioritises functionality and approachability runs counter to the core principles of corporate gentrification. 

For a play called “Union”, there is surprisingly little discussion of collective and organised action.

The solution provided is a return to community values, a call for “the good councillors” to prevent land developments, and protecting the areas people love.  But as an account of the emptiness of gentrified spaces, the class segregation and contradictory consciousness in a time of crisis, Union is a success.

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