The Real Estate
by Freddie Machin
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Cast: 21f 18m
A sharply observed, epic play combining elements of social realism and satire, which asks: who do our homes really belong to, and who gets to tell our stories?
A tower block in central London is bought by private developers. Their plan is to raise rents, forcing the current tenants out.
But the residents won't give up their homes that easily. Recruiting the help of a film crew already shooting on the estate, they take on big business – and come face-to-face with their history in the process.
The Real Estate was first performed and produced by the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts.
Content guidance: This play contains strong language, and onstage portrayals of violence.
About the author
Based on his play of the same title, Freddie Machin wrote the feature film Chicken, which received its UK cinema release in May 2016. Mark Kermode included it in his best films of that year for the Guardian, and it received its network premiere on FilmFour.
Freddie’s plays include Party Pooper (Drama Studio London), The Real Estate, Candy Cansino Checks In (Italia Conti Academy of Dramatic Arts), Nailhouse (Old Red Lion), Winston on the Run (Edinburgh Festival Fringe/UK tour), The Revenge of Martha G. (Chichester Festival Theatre), Don’t Waste Your Bullets on the Dead (Vault Festival), Chicken (Southwark Playhouse), and Twelve Miles from Nowhere (Action Transport Theatre).
Freddie trained as an actor at Manchester School of Theatre, and has taught both acting and playwriting for Shakespeare’s Globe, the Almeida Theatre, the Royal Opera House, and Royal Central School of Speech and Drama amongst others.
Interview with Freddie Machin
The Real Estate is about gentrification and the effect that rent rises in London has had on the social makeup of various
areas. What drew you to this subject?
About a year before I wrote The Real Estate, I was working on a project about the huge number of LGBTQI pubs and clubs which were being closed down in central London. I interviewed a number of artists, campaigners, councillors, and publicans, who were involved in the fight to save venues like the Joiners Arms, and the historic Royal Vauxhall Tavern. The sheer force of the commercial interests they were fighting against was overwhelming. Cultural venues were having to prove their worth in terms that didn’t apply to them. You can’t put a price on what these spaces offer to society, not to mention the community they serve on a nightly basis.
As one of my interviewees said at the time, the LGBTQI community was the canary in the mine for this kind of change happening all over the capital. And sure enough, the same thing began happening with social housing.
I developed the idea into a three-hander about a man protesting against the compulsory purchase order of his house, which was produced by the Old Red Lion Theatre. I called the play Nailhouse after finding some incredible images of people who had done a similar thing in China. Refusing to budge even as the bulldozers began work excavating the site around their homes. It was an extremely potent image which seemed to crystallise the struggle of people in London and around the world who were being pushed around by capitalist ventures.
I was given the opportunity to write a play for the 30+ student actors in their graduating year at Italia Conti, which seemed like the perfect next step in the genesis of this idea. It meant I could write the story on the large-scale canvas that it deserved. Like Georges Perec’s novel Life: A User’s Manual, it could peep into the windows of an entire community of people, and start to understand how those jigsaw puzzle pieces might come together to create a bigger image of resistance, power, and community.
The play features three intertwined storylines, including a play (or rather a film) within a play. Why did you choose to structure your story in this way?
The simple answer to this is the cast size. Writing a play for this many actors demands the writer create a number of storylines to accommodate them.
But I’m also really interested in metatheatricality. Theatre has the potential to depict a number of different worlds existing simultaneously. The film that is being created is a version of events which actually happened on that site decades before. So the audience is watching a number of images layered on top of one another. We see the contemporary housing estate, we see the film crew invading that space, then we see the story which they are making, and then we realise that we are also watching the original historical moment that inspired the film.
So the structural decision felt like it reflected one of the ideas at the heart of the play, the fact that the place itself has a character, one which deepens and becomes more complex with time. For instance, in East London today, there are examples of social housing blocks built on the site of the slums that Dickens described. And as Elizabeth says in the play, London is a living organism which is constantly regenerating, we can’t ignore the way history intertwines with our lives today. Its impact is all around us.
What was the inspiration for the film within a play?
The story of the Balfron Tower in Poplar, East London had a big influence on the story of the film within the play. Erno Goldfinger, the architect that designed it, lived there for a number of months with his wife, and threw champagne receptions for all of the new tenants. This idea is reflected in the initial scenes, but I must stress, the film is not the story of the Balfron. The post-war ideals that form the backbone of the story pre-date that building considerably.
The film feels a bit like an episode of Luther set in the late fifties, whereas Jeremy, the director, seems to think he is making a contemporary version of Cathy Come Home. Danielle is the only person in the play who recognises the gap between these two ideas, and highlights the fact that housing estates on film are synonymous with zombies, gangs, and domestic violence.
In performance I think there is a balance to strike between enjoying the vintage knockabout nature of the story, and the contemporary relevance of such a story.
Do you have any advice for actors performing the play, or for directors staging it?
The play was first performed on Wednesday 14 June 2017, which was the day of the Grenfell Tower fire. Arriving at the theatre amidst the news coverage of such a tragic event was a surreal experience. We had a long discussion about whether the show should go ahead, and if it did what kind of resonance might it have in light of such an extraordinary tragedy.
The play did go ahead, with an acknowledgement of Grenfell, and a donation box set up for the residents. But throughout that week of shows, Grenfell remained a palpable presence in the room, and was on everybody’s lips after the show. Although the story of the play does not entirely correlate with what happened, it is nevertheless a story about the neglect of people that live in social housing in the capital today.
Also, whilst we were rehearsing the play at Italia Conti, our stage manager noticed that the housing estate which we could see from our rehearsal room, was also under threat. The tenants were organising a campaign to save their homes from property developers looking to raise rents, and gentrify the area, just as they were in the play.
To this day, I think the play still reflects a very live issue in our society. This is something that is worth bearing in mind. It’s a big play, but it’s a story worth telling, and a conversation which has to be kept alive if we believe in the power of the welfare state, and everybody’s right to a home.