Men Who Sleep in Cars by Michael Symmons Roberts

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Men Who Sleep in Cars by Michael Symmons Roberts (2014). Dir. Susan Roberts. Perf. Maxine Peake, Rob Edwards, Robert Haythorne. BBC Radio 4, 5 Feb. 2015.
BBCiPlayer to 7 Mar. 2015.

Set in the week before England's first World Cup game in 2014 - with the voice of pundit Pat Nevin added for authenticity - Men Who Sleep in Cars is a verse-drama depicting the lives of three very different men (Nick Haverson, Robert Haythorne, Rob Edwards) who for various reasons spend their nights sleeping in cars. One is a failed medical scientist; another a drug-addict; and another a company director. Their lives are united by the fact they are all victims of the recession in some way.

Through sympathetic narration (by Maxine Peake) plus their own confessions, we learn something about their isolation - despite appearances to the contrary (Rob Edwards's McCulloch wears a Paul Smith suit and drives a Mercedes in a vain attempt to prove his social worth). They spend their nights unable to sleep, their rest disturbed by the rhythms of a Manchester night: the muffled shouts of revelers on their way home from the clubs; the wail of police sirens; the thump and bang of couples in adjacent apartment-blocks fighting with one another. Treated for the most part like tramps, they are ruthlessly "moved on," even though they are not actually doing any harm. They rely on the radio for company, but even that can prove a double-edged sword, as many of the programs invite them to contrast the prosperous lifestyles of the presenters (and the listeners who phone in) with their own miserable existences.

Like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, the three men remain incurable optimists, always looking forward to the day when they can recover their self-esteem by obtaining a "proper job." As the play unfolds, however, it seems increasingly unlikely that they will ever achieve their goal; there are simply no available opportunities.

Yet Susan Roberts's production was not content with this negative message. As the play unfolds we discover that the three men's past lives have been intertwined in ways that they would never have believed (or understood). The central focus of attention shifts from their economic woes to the moment, several years ago, when McCulloch's fifteen-year-old daughter went into hospital for a routine blood-test. What happened afterwards happened to involve all three men. Through this plot-line we discovered just how human lives are governed by Fate, however independent they might claim to be. Perhaps the only way to cope with this knowledge is to accept it, and try and live as best as one can.

Throughout the drama Maxine Peake's narrator both comments on and becomes involved in the action. We are never quite sure of her exact role; is she just a narrator, or does she speak for some of the (unheard) characters that have influenced the three men's collective pasts? Perhaps she is there to prove the power of Fate to determine one's life. Whatever her role might be, she is both sympathetic yet pragmatic as she comments on the three men's existences.

Michael Symmons Roberts's script was, quite simply, brilliant - full of witty rhymes yet vivid in its portrayal of life in contemporary Manchester, and how it can seem extremely harsh for those unfortunate enough not to have a job. Men Who Sleep in Cars is probably the best play from this highly talented author that I have heard to date.

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