Here’s the brutal truth about many of our rights: we only really have them if we have the wherewithal to fight for them when they’re trampled on. That’s certainly the case when it comes to employment rights, as I can personally attest to having been through a two-year legal battle in the tribunal system myself.
Most people don’t have the opportunity or means to wage that fight, and so thank god for unions, who not only support members subjected to individual employment breaches but who set up test cases to challenge more widespread exploitation and legislative blind spots. Whether you’re in a union or not yourself, if you are an employee, you benefit from this essential work that unions undertake.
It was just such a test case that inspired James Woolf to pen Empty in Angel, after hearing about it at a Law Society lecture. In the solo play, Darcy Willison plays Watford, a bicycle courier, being ground down by the harsh zero-hour contracts of the gig economy. She recruits her courier mates to join the fledgling Independent Workers of Great Britain union (still less than 10 years old) and then becomes the initial test case to get couriers recognised as workers with rights rather than mere contractors with no entitlements.
Having premiered at the White Bear Theatre in 2019, Empty in Angel was remounted this autumn for a London tour, which culminated this weekend at its “spiritual home” at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel, the part of the city from which the play gets its title.
For the Q&A after the final performance, I was joined by writer James Woolf, performer Darcy Willison, director Katherine Reilly and, a very special guest, Independent Workers of Great Britain representative Max Dewhurst, who was the claimant in the test case on which the play is based, and who, ten years on, is still a bicycle courier.
Starting question to Max: how does it feel to have part of your life enacted onstage? There was also much discussion about the gig economy, courier contracts, employment rights, the importance of unions, rhyming couplets, rap and the creative process. Oh, and a very cute therapy puppy in the audience. So young he was still nameless, we dubbed him “Angelo”. Pics below.
Event photography by Peter Jones.