Talking about Thatcher in the North East is like saying Lord Voldemort’s name at Hogwarts… or it is in my grandad’s company. His family were all miners and he saw first-hand how she starved a community into submission, left men without purpose and flattened economies here in the North East. I knew instantly when I read Approaching Empty that I had to be part of the production; listening to Mansha – his politics, his dreams, his distain of Thatcher is like hearing my grandad talk. The great thing about Ishy’s writing, however, is that he isn’t one sided – this is not a play of pure Thatcher bashing. Mansha may echo a lot of peoples feelings of her, but Raf, his counterpart and boss, argues Thatcher was a great visionary who saw the mines for what they were – unprofitable and from the past, and he, like many others, flourished in Thatcher’s capitalist economy.
Approaching Empty puts a spotlight on the the steelworks in Middlesbrough – many North Easterners will have memories of Redcar Steelworks. In fact, only last year I was part of a film, Blood Steel, directed by Tim Goodill, which focussed on the impact and effect closing the steelworks had on Redcar’s community. (Unemployment in 2017 jumped by 16.2% after the steelworks had been closed, making Redcar one of the poorest constituencies in the UK). It’s a community that has been abused by big companies and ignored by the government, leaving it with a broken economy.
Ishy writes about a North Eastern working class community that struggled after Thatcher’s Britain, and gives their stories a platform on a national stage without it being a caricature. The truth in his writing and his voice is because Ishy is one of us – he’s writing about his North East not as an outsider looking in – and you can see that in the play. Too often we get a “wey aye man” as some stereotypical menial comedy role in a show, but Ishy writes nuanced and beautiful characters who are heartbreaking and real. And as Ishy says, the comedy within Approaching Empty comes from playing the truth of the situation, not from playing it for laughs.
Approaching Empty is relevant because it’s about us, it’s about what our families went through and what impact this had on the younger generations. Did our families succeed or were they broken by Thatcher’s politics? What is it like to be the new generation in those families? Can we still chase our dreams or are we hindered by the fears of what our parents and grandparents went through? This is even more prevalent with those, who like me, are in the arts. When I first said to my grandad I wanted to be an actor/director you’d have thought I’d said I’d like to be a mermaid. It talks of multiple generations and their political/ethical outlooks. As an audience we start to look at our own lives and ask ourselves what would we have done differently if our family and livelihoods were at stake? Are we any different from the supposed “bad guys”?. It’s as important a play now as it would have been in 2013, because we’re a country who is heavily divided by politics and scared of economic collapse but we can make good choices for the future.
In Approaching Empty we join Mansha and Raf on the 8th April 2013, the day Thatcher died, in Raf’s taxi office where business is failing. We voyeuristically watch as Mansha, Raf and their families slowly fall apart through their choices and consequences, when good men make cut throat decisions which don’t always play out the way they had hoped.
Catch Approaching Empty at Live Theatre, Newcastle now until 23rd February, before it heads off on a national tour. All dates and booking information.
By guest editor, Heather Carroll – Approaching Empty Assistant Director and proud North Easterner ❤️