Katherine Thomson’s 1991 play Diving for Pearls still packs a killer punch. It’s set in a coastal town with a huge steelworks plant in the period when the plant’s going under, gentrification is starting to take place and the workers are losing their jobs.
Den is fifty, shy and quietly spoken. He’s a labourer at the steelworks and is in love with Barbara, who is unemployed, living in a hostel and dreaming of getting a job at the international resort being built on the beach front. Barbara is rough as guts, foul mouthed and chock full of aspirations.
BARBARA: I don’t mind Housing Commission, I never have, but we’ve all lived in each other’s pockets for too long. I’ve won every prize at bingo, I’ve borrowed every decent video, and I’m starting to go off the football. And if I sew another collar and cuff on another permanent press business shirt I’ll – do myself in –
She wants to better herself and thinks that a diploma in deportment and grooming from a modelling school is just what she needs to turn her life around. “I know you have to look the part. Like you were eating croysants before anyone else had heard of them.” Den, the lovelorn mug, is her cheque book to her glorious new future.
Diving for Pearls is a play about love, about broken dreams, and about workers getting shafted while the bosses sell up, move on and make a killing. It’s just as pertinent now as it was in 1991 when it was written.
DEN: You didn’t have to tell me my job was going to be different. […] That there was some chance that we might stop dreading coming in here. Have some sort of say. That we all might find some parts of our minds that we’ve forgotten how to use.
Halfway through the play Verge, Barbara’s adult daughter with a mild intellectual disability, arrives on the scene. She’s wonderfully honest and outspoken and quickly bonds with Den, much to Barbara’s chagrin. Barbara can’t cope with Verge: with her need or her loyalty.
BARBARA: She follows me there. Won’t wait outside. I can’t take her in like any normal sub-normal. Because every time I talk to someone she says, This is my mother who deserted me but now we’re back together again. (Pause) I need help. I’m falling apart. Bits of me are falling off all over the place and before I get a chance to turn around and pick them up some fucking, some fucking, twelve-ton lorry drives right over them.
There’s no happy ending in Diving for Pearls, but you know there won’t be. How can there be when you’re talking about jobs and careers for people who are made redundant when they’re middle aged and who have no qualifications or training beyond the work they were doing.
This is either a bleak comedy or a comic tragedy: it’s sad and funny in equal measures, which makes it all the more disturbing and powerful.
Publisher: Currency Press
Cast: 3F, 2M