Jamie Cameron

Max Wilkinson on gentrification, urban dystopias, and his new play, Union

Union at the Arcola Theatre, 19th July – 12th August 2023.


Hey Max, thanks for chatting to us about your new play Union. To kick things off, would you mind explaining a bit about what the play is about? Where is it set? What kind of characters does it follow?

So Union follows Saskia, who is an uber-successful property developer who, on the eve of the biggest deal of her career, a massive toxic development in West London, decides to run from the boardroom, all the way to Stratford in the East, down the Grand Union Canal. As she runs she’s plagued by phone calls, her boss and the ghosts from her past and the city. Having spent the last ten years in Ubers and meetings, she barely recognises the city she was born in and has had, with her company, a large part in changing.

As she travels across all of London, on the canal, it becomes a sort of odyssey of the places of her life and London, and all the characters she meets along the way. Some try to help her, some hate her, but you quickly see her shiny life isn’t so shiny as everything unravels and she’s battered with guilt for a tragic mistake she made in her youth. And the city she doesn’t know anymore. It’s basically A Christmas Carol on coke, but sweatier, with added canal.

When you came on The London Magazine Podcast earlier this year we chatted a lot about the uniqueness of London’s urban space, its buildings and approach to planning, how does Union seek to represent that?

Yeah, so I was born in London and love it and I think, like most people, you have a constant, if not slight, anxiety that it’s changing and often not for the better. That diversity – in culture, architecture and people, that makes it so unique – is perhaps being flattened, and maybe irrevocably. And this speaks to a wider anxiety that this process is being echoed globally.

With the play, I didn’t want to be in any way preachy. ‘Gentrification’ and ‘urban renewal’ is an incredibly complicated argument that is very stupid to be didactic about. It involves us all, it brings good things to the area and businesses and its change, which is inevitable, regardless. However, everyone agrees there is a housing crisis and growing inequality and this is massively down to when developers are allowed to rock the housing market with unchecked, uncompassionate, mass-development. I don’t think that’s a particularly radical view-point.

I think, or hope, that this is anxiety that nearly all of us feel, regardless of political belief or angle. The play seeks really only to paint a portrait of a city of London but while it details anxiety and an encroaching, seemingly inevitable wave after wave after new development, it’s about joy, laughs and community and spirit of London which is very much still beating away.

There is, like I say, just an anxiety that that spirit is fragile but, through collective action and awareness, when overdevelopment gets genuinely toxic, there are things we can do, as people and communities by simply being aware of what we do, how we rent, purchase, start new businesses and get together and lobby and resist when developments do genuinely become toxic.

Our audiences have been full of councillors, housing activists and local people and people that don’t necessarily go to the theatre and we’re really proud of that. We’ve also had brilliant post-show Q and As with people active in the community giving simple, collective, practical solutions to come together and resist the worst of gentrification and social cleansing and over-development.

But it’s very hopeful, not angry, and, like the play, full of laughs and joy and community. And we’ve had brilliant reviews and especially audiences really engaging and loving the show, which is of course a wonderful feeling.

Another theme that seems to link a lot of your work is that of ghosts or haunting. How do you think hauntology manifests itself in London’s property world?

That’s a really good question. I think it’s all wrapped up with development, hauntology. Cities like New York, London, Berlin – formerly massive industrial cities, see the most rampant development because of all their old industrial zones that lay empty for a whole, before being filled up by artists, and squats, then coffee-shops, and bike-repair stations, and then the yuppie flats. The process is sort of globally recognised.

But then you get this sort of shiny new state of things that uncomfortably sits with its past in this bizarre, anachronistic stainless steel fusion. The canal is a fascinating example of this. Especially with London, but cities like Manchester, and Birmingham etc, these were the old industrial arteries of the city. So post-industrialisation, these are the places with tons and tons of empty depots and warehouses which the developers buy for a song and do-up and transform. They’re also beautiful spots where people like to drink, when it gets warmer.

King’s Cross is a perfect example of this. You have old gas works and rings closed down but they keep the steel structure rigs of them and then build the luxury flats inside the old rings! It’s sort of like a museum of the past meets the shiny, slightly dystopian vision of the future. And I think you see that process all over.

Finally, if you could recommend a double-feature of sorts that the audience could watch alongside Union – a piece of art, whether that be a book or play, an album or a painting – what would it be?

Hmm, very good question. I used the brilliant film the Swimmer, Mike Leigh’s Naked and even the Warriors as influence for this! I love road movies within a city and they do it so well. So those films I suppose!

Max Wilkinson is an award-winning playwright fascinated with cities and characters trying to navigate an increasingly absurd world. He won the Paris Royal Script Award, Screen to Screen Award and was a finalist for the Nick Darke Award, Theatre Uncut’s Prize for Political Writing and recently, Samuel French’s Off Off-Broadway Award. He’s also had plays produced at The Arcola Theatre, the King’s Head Theatre, Theatre 503, Paines Plough and many others across London. His play, Union, is currently on at the Arcola until 12 August.

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