Image courtesy of Max Wilkinson
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Arcola Theatre’s latest show depicts the shifting face of the East End

Union by Max Wilkinson is an odyssey through London, exploring the gentrification of the East End and its knock-on effects on individuals and communities.

Over the last thirty years, Tower Hamlets has seen intensive and extensive change. The rise of private housing and urban regeneration projects have transformed the streets of neighbourhoods like Shoreditch or Stratford; neglected council estates have been swept away and replaced with shiny high-rise buildings. 

Crucially, there is a human cost to this kind of economic development. How does gentrification affect those individuals and communities fundamental to the heart of East London? 

Union at the Arcola Theatre provides food for thought. The latest from acclaimed playwright Max Wilkinson, Union explores the rapidly changing landscape of inner London through the eyes of Saskia, a successful property developer. On the eve of the biggest deal of her career, Saskia runs all the way from Portobello, West London to her childhood home in Bromley-by-Bow, East London, a trip along the Grand Union Canal in which a host of characters encourage Saskia to reflect on her part in stripping London of its soul. 

Union focuses on stories specific to the East End. It touches on smartened-up high streets in Limehouse, the last council tenants of Isle of Dogs, the gated estates of Stratford and the transformation of Hackney Wick into a yuppie pleasure playground. 

It would be a mistake to think of Union as all doom and gloom. The play is ultimately a love letter to London. Wilkinson champions collective action – after all, it is people coming together, collaborating, and seeking justice as a collective that saved Ridley Road Market from destruction in 2022. 

To us, Wilkinson describes the play as ‘A Christmas Carol on steroids’. ‘It cuts to the core of how I feel about London, how it is, like many cities across the world, still diverse and beautiful but massively under constant threat of becoming homogenised due to development and greed.’ 

When asked about what he wants audiences to take away from the show, Wilkinson said: ‘I want people to laugh a lot, think and enjoy. It’s [gentrification] is such a difficult argument, and one that is very easy to be dogmatic and preachy about but, at the end of the day, it’s [Union] about, I hope, tapping into an anxiety that we all share, celebrating community and maybe, just maybe, looking towards a future that offers a few more solutions through collective action and resistance.’ 

As a community-driven piece of theatre, Union’s run at the Arcola includes post-show talks and writing workshops aimed to engage local activists and thespians alike. 

Union is on at the Arcola Theatre from 19 July to 12 August 2023. 

If you enjoyed this, you may also like Bow playwright Simon Stephens on East London, the gentrification of bacon sarnies and that Hot Priest.

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