Owen Jones was inspired to write Chavs: the demonization of the working class, his polemic on class hatred in the UK, when friends at a dinner party jokingly lamented the demise of Woolworths, asking “where would all the chavs get their Christmas presents.”
This us-and-them mentality, this class divide, is exactly what Waifs and Strays theatre company seeks to dramatise in Chavs, its response to Jones’s book. Performed in the studio venue at Hammersmith’s Lyric, it is made up of six short plays, each written and directed by different dramatists, each examining various elements of the British class system. It is well acted, with diverse direction in each play, though watching Somewhere between the news clip and the gossip section (three small tragedies) feels rather like sitting through a performing arts GCSE exam.
What differentiates Chavs-the-play from Chavs-the-book is that it zooms out from what Jones sees as the political onslaught against the working-class to focus more on the wider social structure of British society. A middle-class couple, with their Cath Kidston tablecloth, Ethiopian ground coffee in Penguin classic mugs and pilates classes are aghast at the contempt of their friends towards “chavs”, and yet eventually admit their conviction that the kids on the local council estate have a biological condition making them feral. Perhaps this couple is a blown-up interpretation of Jones’s dinner party friends.
Social prejudice is shown to manifest itself in different ways: in one play, Last man on the Heygate, a recovering drug addict on a council estate brands Colleen Rooney a chav, while her grandfather, a former union leader, shows solidarity towards the young man who tries to stab him because he recognises his lack of opportunity. Two teenage friends who have attended the same secondary school are set apart by their familial backgrounds: one of them interning at the BBC and aspiring to go to university; the other having vague plans to work in a minimum wage job and resenting his friend “knobbing about in London eating cheese in the poncy wine bars.”
But aside from a few small recognitions of the vast hybridity of British society, Chavs relies heavily on stereotypes: the warehouse employee at Asda who steals a bottle of Archers; the young man and woman describing a stabbing in tracksuits and London slang; the Conservative MP who keeps letters from relatives in Liverpool hidden away and refuses a job to a young girl because of her “common” accent.
Luckily, most plays have humorous moments, diverting from the awkwardness of presenting a serious topic in a clichéd manner. So we laugh when the Asda employee makes a comment about it not being Waitrose, and when the recovering drug addict thinks “cloves” are clothes because that is how she pronounces the word. Being British, these instances have surrounded us our entire lives, and the familiarity of it feel s, in a strange way, almost comforting. But we then look back at ourselves, and realise that one of the characteristics uniting us as a nation is our class system. Chavs may have some forced, exaggerated moments, and make some obvious points, but it also exposes uncomfortable truths about just how much social class is ingrained in our national psyche.