Beyond Fiction: Anticipating York Actors Collective’s Beyond Caring


Cara Doherty (she/her) heads into rehearsals for YAC's new production of Alexander Zeldin’s 'Beyond Caring'

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Image by John Saunders

By Cara Doherty

I’m told this isn’t the usual rehearsal space. There’s been a mix-up, and today the cast of Beyond Caring are setting up next to the altar of Southlands Methodist Church rather than their normal rehearsal room. As I sit down with director Angie Millard, I’m surrounded by reminders of Sunday school – a flag on the wall demands ‘GIVE ME LOVE IN MY HEART’ in bold print.

In this makeshift rehearsal space, I meet my first of many comparisons to the original production’s creator and director, Alexander Zeldin. “Look how incredible we are with nothing. Imagine what we could do with a bit of something” Zeldin philosophised in a 2023 Guardian interview, lamenting the poor state of arts support and funding in the UK. Angie tells me the York Actors Collective (YAC) was formed and is funded by her and her husband, Clive. After success directing Alan Ayckborne’s A Woman in Mind for the York Settlement Community Players in 2022, she yearned for an opportunity to make her own choices without the constraints and commitments of a committee-run organisation.

The love and effort imbued into this production and the YAC as a whole is clear, and, as I discover, microcosmic of a wider charitable attitude towards the arts in the York community. Theatre@41, where the play is being performed, is run by volunteers. Clive jokingly notes that with this production they only really aim to break even – the group’s previous and first production, Joe Orton’s Educating Mr Sloane, “actually made them a little bit!”.

So this is a passion project, but what inspired the passion? Beyond Caring, first devised by Zeldin and the cast of the original production, follows a group of temporary workers cleaning a meat factory on zero hour contracts. Throughout, they navigate their tenuous relationships with each other, a permanent worker, and their corporate machine of a manager. It is a bleak and confrontational play, running 90 minutes with no interval, and hosts a cast of characters who suffer personally, financially and openly at turns.

“A modern day tragedy”, Angie coins it, cathartic in the relief that it's not happening to you, and I can’t help but agree. It's impossible not to see the parallels between a play borne out of austerity in 2014 and its echoes ten years later. An article written by Sarah Marie Hall of the University of Manchester in early 2023 details how austerity ‘lives on’ – continual cuts to public spending, a nation ever on the brink of recession, and the ongoing dismantling of the welfare state all suggest that perhaps austerity never really ended. Angie describes how she really bought into the horror of the working conditions depicted – when she started working, everyone relied on their union to look after them and she is shocked and appalled by the romanticisation of the gig economy. “There’s nothing grand about it”, she and the play challenge.

The idea of the arts making a difference is well-worn, but Chris Pomfrett, who brought the play to Angie’s attention and plays the scarred and silent Phil, reanimates the discussion with me during a tea break in rehearsals by noting the impact of the recent ITV series Mr Bates vs. The Post Office. Based on the true story of the Post Office scandal, in which hundreds of subpostmasters were wrongly accused of embezzlement due to a faulty computer system, this fictionalisation has the markings of creating real justice. The scandal became major national news again, petitions have swirled to revoke the CBE of former Post Office CEO, Paula Vennells, and legislation to exonerate and financially compensate those affected has been announced in parliament. Theatre, film, television; they create emotional reactions, Chris insists. People become more than “just names and numbers”. This is a play that places a spotlight on some of the most vulnerable and, more than that, invisible people in our society. This is a play that inspires justice without ever explicitly asking for it.

How exactly did they land on this gem of modern theatre? Chris is named by Angie as the one with his finger on the pulse, trawling through options to find something that fits the YAC’s aims and age profile. They “don’t quite vote on it”, Angie notes, but it's very important to her that the group fully buy into the production. What she describes, and what I am soon to see in rehearsals, encourages further connections between her and Zeldin – that of directorial style. There is a conversational relationship between director and company, script and action. Although the piece already appears to be running like a smooth-oiled machine, the actors occasionally pause and ask if they can rework dialogue or staging, adding in lines and extending moments.

Angie tells me that before rehearsals began, she asked the cast to write a backstory for their character, but not to share it with the rest of the group. Certain details are requested or teased out, but the idea is that their knowledge of each other reflects the superficial nature of relationships within this line of work – strangers, thrown together, navigating friendship and rivalry on the thin details they know of each other's lives. Angie describes advice that she received from a colleague when she was teaching: “you never know what happened at the breakfast table”. While this is true, part of the irony of the piece that I picked up on over the course of rehearsals is how everything that feels buried deep in fact sits on the surface of these characters. This play has many levels, and one of them is human study.

Angie warns me that the play is ‘different’. “I defy anyone to say they’ve ever seen anything like it” she boasts, but she’s right – it is a somewhat plotless play, with few central themes aside from broad strokes of hardship and life. Instead we are met with scraps of people, of heartbreaks, humour and connection and asked not to fill in the gaps but rather take it at face value. It has clearly been hard work trying to ensure cohesion, which finds itself in bleak reality. Its naturalism to a new extent: the actors/characters eat real sandwiches at lunch time, and clean real dirty appliances. The dialogue is conversational to a degree that I often wonder where the person ends and the character begins. At times, as I sit, a voyeur, an imposter in both the rehearsal room and working environment, I feel the piece is less theatrical and more performance art.

But Zeldin’s vision of theatre “about humanity, not society” still shines through, mostly through the moments of light in the dark. This is an unexpectedly funny play, mostly unexpected in its infectiousness. I find myself chuckling along as if I’m with friends because it's all just so ordinary. The silly awkwardness, the wide-eyed stares at one another – it's the Gogglebox effect of watching and laughing both at and with yourself reflected back at you. But as you’re laughing, you’re learning. Angie notes these Brechtian influences and intentions, hoping that as the audience lets their guard down they also learn something important.

From the little I have seen, I can’t help but be moved to see this production as so much bigger than itself. In a promotional ‘First Look’ video for the show, Zeldin has reflected on how the play takes on new meanings and nuances with its setting – his own example details how, when moved to America, the play became more intimately concerned with race due to the prevalence of black and Latino workers within jobs that have zero hour contracts. It reinforces the omnipresent idea of how this play is about people not characters, reality not fiction. As such, it moulds to the contexts of its production. Here in York, that feels like a labour of love. Effort for little reward except a desire to push yourself and your audience.

I earnestly hope that this effort is rewarded with the full houses it deserves. I’ll be there, and I urge the community to join me.

Editor's Note: Beyond Caring runs 6-10 February 2024 at Theatre@41 York, with matinee and evening performances. Tickets can be purchased here: