Wish List @ Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

The winner of the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting is a necessary play about unnecessary pain.

Review by Lauren Strain | 29 Sep 2016

“Whatever you think is the limit you can do, raise it.”

The 2015 winner of Europe’s biggest national prize for playwriting, Wish List by Katherine Soper is a window onto the life of two teenage siblings trying to survive in an employment and benefits system that views them only as numbers. It opens at the Royal Exchange Studio in Manchester just days before British director Ken Loach comes to the city to discuss his new film, I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes festival for its portrait of a 59-year-old man who is declared fit for work after experiencing a major heart attack.

That these stories are being recognised at the highest level offers some relief; yet there is still none for the thousands who must endure a torpid hell of scrutiny, self-justification, applications and appeals to this day.

The line above is spoken by a supervisor at Tamsin's place of work, a warehouse where she stuffs boxes to a timer displaying her target and average speed. Played with a frazzled energy by Erin Doherty, 19-year-old Tamsin is the sole carer for her younger brother Dean (Joseph Quinn), whose obsessive compulsive disorder prevents him from carrying out household tasks yet whose benefits payments have been stopped because his assessors have no evidence – or understanding – of the extent to which he is incapacitated.

Ironically, the rituals and repetitions that afflict Dean and make work impossible for him are paralleled by others Tamsin must adopt to carry out hers. “One thing I've noticed is that when people are using the same hands to do the same things, hour on hour, they find carpal tunnel tends to set in... So you might want to consider changing what each hand is doing every so often,” her supervisor (Aleksandar Mikic) tells her. “Shall we put that down as a suggested objective?”

This kind of serrated humour is a regular feature of the script – as is a tenderness that develops between Tamsin and her co-worker Luke (a nimble and generous Shaquille Ali-Yebuah). They share two particularly warm scenes where Tamsin becomes slowly, tentatively illuminated by the kind of spirit that is denied to her most of the time, and Doherty gives a stirring performance as someone made lightheaded by just a few mouthfuls of beer and the intoxicating rarity of someone believing in her.

Quibbles are small: it takes a bit too long to get to know Dean, perhaps inevitably defined more by his preoccupations than his personality; and the staging can indicate climaxes after they've already come, more effective for having been quiet. But this is a sensitive play with some sharp writing and subtle direction: in one symbolic motion towards the end, Tamsin seems to suggest the madness of it all; that work is perhaps the very thing that makes us unfit for work, creating sickness in perpetuity. It is left to the audience to interpret.

Wish List is at the Royal Exchange Studio until 15 October.