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  • Miles Hedley

UNKNOWN at Greenwich Theatre

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

How does a writer create a fury-driven polemic without seeming to batter an audience into submission? The line that separates engagement and alienation is a fine one – but Dougie Blaxland walks it brilliantly in Unknown, a new play about the scandal of homelessness in some of Britain’s most affluent places.

Using the shameful revelation that in two years from 2017 more than 800 people – half of them unnamed – died on our streets, award-winner Blaxland has created a truly harrowing account of the men and women who become social outcasts through mental illness, domestic abuse, financial ruin, red tape or even happenstance.

His play, staged in the studio space at Greenwich Theatre, is based on the true experiences of six men who know what it is to be destitute and desperate. And over the course of just over an hour, Blaxland shows us in increasingly agonising detail how a teenager with learning difficulties from an addiction-ravaged home finds himself trapped in a downward spiral that ends, with hideous inevitability, in tragedy.

The work is given greater heft by its setting – the moneyed heartlands of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire including, most shockingly, upmarket Bath.

In this production by RoughHouse Theatre, directors Moira Hunt and Shane Morgan handled the bleakness of the story with great skill, maintaining an emotional intensity that seared your soul without ever spilling over into hysteria.

And the cast were magnificent, Scott Bayliss swinging wildly between rage and bewilderment as the doomed protagonist, Sabrina Laurison as his sister doggedly trying to trace him in the face of official indifference, incompetence or ignorance, all portrayed by Dan Gaisford in a series of beautifully judged character studies that cleverly managed to avoid cliché.

Normally I would hope to leave a theatre at the end of a performance smiling with enjoyment. On this occasion, however, I left emotionally drained and spitting with rage. And I was delighted to feel like that because this is a seriously important piece of work that deserves as wide – and as angry – an audience as possible.

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