What do you know about where you live? The people, the places, the history? My answer to that question would have to be, shamefully, very little. I know the local park where I like to take walks, the cafe that sells the best cakes, the places where you can get your art and your coffee in one revitalising shot. Beyond that, though, I’m fairly detached from any true sense of place, as I suspect many of us are today. In fluid urban landscapes, where home takes on a shifting and provisional character, it’s hard to form meaningful roots.
I open by asking this because it’s a question that implicitly underlies the intergenerational work of London Bubble Theatre Company. Their last show, Blackbirds, collected and told stories about how London Bubble’s local area was affected during the Blitz. Now From Docks to Desktops, which was itself born out of the Blackbirds project, reveals another facet of this community through an exploration of working life and how it has changed over the years. London Bubble’s home in Rotherhithe is at the heart of an area of the city that has seen some of the most dramatic changes to both its landscape and its structures of employment in the last few decades; where once thrived docks and factories is now the home of lucrative property developments and shopping centres. This is the transformation that From Docks to Desktops traces.
Director Jonathan Petherbridge has a particular language for discussing London Bubble’s intergenerational work and it’s a helpful one to adopt. In explaining the process of collecting and curating stories from the local community, he uses the vocabulary of food: ingredients are foraged through a long process of interviews and the findings are prepped by workshop groups before being passed over to professional artists to create a recipe, which will then in turn be tasted and tweaked by everyone involved. It all ends, of course, in a great feast. While this is neat as an analogy, it’s also particularly apt. Preparing and eating a meal together involves an unspoken act of community, one that is also present in this kind of work. It’s a community built on the telling of its own stories.
I recently gave some thought to value judgements and how one goes about critiquing work like this. I should explain at this point that I have a desk in the London Bubble office and have been involved on and off with discussions about From Docks to Desktops since the workshop phase. I’ve attended a couple of rehearsals and a scratch performance, read various drafts of the script and had several conversations about the work. This all constitutes a fairly light and often quite distanced involvement with the show, but nonetheless I’ve been exposed to the process, which is so clearly a huge part of what this piece is doing. Lots of people might only enjoy the feast, but the preparation is just as important – if not more so. Which raises the question, voiced in that earlier piece, of whether it is possible to consider the work without also considering how it was made.
The beauty of From Docks to Desktops, though, is that its process is folded into its product – that’s if the two can even really be separated. The structure of the piece is such that it is framed with its own making, recreating on stage the interview process that yielded all its raw material. The show begins not, as one might expect, in the workplace, but in the home. More specifically, the home of the interviewees, whose words we also hear directly via audio recordings. It is their memories that form the vast majority of the show, but these are presented as a multi-stranded tapestry rather than a flat, straightforward landscape. At some moments we hear their voices, while at others their words come to us through the performers, then at others still their experiences are transformed into poetic abstractions. Unlike many verbatim shows, whose truth claims I nearly always find problematic, here those niggling questions of accuracy and artificiality feel almost irrelevant. Everything is lived experience, passed through more than one subjective filter and viewed through the film of memory. And that’s OK.
It’s in this way that the show recalls ancient oral storytelling traditions, in which the identical reproduction of a tale as it was passed from mouth to mouth was less important than its truthfulness in the moment of telling. There is, of course, a much broader picture also being painted of socio-economic shifts that completely transformed the nature of work in this area, but the piece is as much about the individual and entirely subjective stories it tells as it is about the community they collectively form; in fact, that in itself feels like a false statement, because that community is of course made up of individuals. The other individuals in question here are the performers, many of whom also conducted the interviews that uncovered these stories and whose own working lives are equally given room on stage, binding them in a close relationship with previous generations of workers.
The overarching narrative that can be glimpsed behind the show’s swift succession of anecdotes and workplace scenes is one of change, for better and for worse. The closing of the docks is bitterly mourned in a moving funeral sequence, but we are also asked to witness the hardship of poor working conditions, pay disputes and inequality between men and women. There’s some biting political content (a personal favourite is a scene in which children wearing masks of world leaders play hopscotch, recalling a similar, brilliant moment with a Margaret Thatcher mask in Squally Showers), though this is never at the expense of the stories being told. No place of work is simple; whether dock, factory or office, each is a source of both freedom and confinement, possibility and restriction. It is through this multiplicity of views that the show gains its quiet power, always respecting the place of work in our lives even while questioning it.
The idea of labour is explored at every level of the show, whose stripped back staging makes visible the usually hidden work of making theatre. Scene changes, often involving the conspicuous dragging on and off of materials, are deliberately highlighted rather than concealed with embarrassment. The aesthetic, rather than attempting to polish away its rough edges, instead makes these part of the very fabric of the piece; yes, it can at times be messy or chaotic, but this feels oddly appropriate.
The old, vanished workplace, meanwhile, haunts the senses. London Bubble have not particularly attached From Docks to Desktops to the now fashionable “site-specific” label, but it can lay claim to the true meaning of that phrase more justifiably than many other productions that masquerade under its banner. The show is performed in the old Peek Freans factory, once a major employer in this area and now functioning as a series of offices and studios. Pip Nash’s simple design allows enough of this space to remain visible for audiences to appreciate the history of the site, while also bringing in traces of other workplaces, such as a shipping container that dominates one corner of the stage. The other simple but brilliant touch is to have biscuits baking next door throughout the performance, sending the smells mentioned in the stories wafting evocatively over the audience. (Plus, we’re invited to have a taste at the end of the show – what’s not to love?)
There are, undoubtedly, some flaws. While the rhythm of labour is integral to the piece, this busy hum of activity occasionally threatens to obscure the stories being told, with simply too much happening on stage at once. The most successful moments are often the simplest; in one powerful image of female figures slowly walking into the shadows, for instance, the devastating loss of work and independence for married women is wordlessly conveyed. There is also at times a desire to impress certain messages too strongly upon the audience, demonstrated in particular by a chorus of sorts that threads its way through the piece with mixed success, which seems to be at odds with the subjective plurality and balance exhibited elsewhere.
Whether or not you approve of all the show’s artistic choices, however, it’s difficult to argue with the purpose it has found as both process and product. Through the journey it has taken on its way to the stage and the stories it now shares with its audiences, From Docks to Desktops forms a community that crosses barriers of age and embeds itself firmly within an often neglected sense of place. Petherbridge has coined the term “vernacular theatre” to describe this work; like vernacular architecture, it is “hewn from local material and shaped by local knowledge”. It serves a specific use for a specific community, and its very material is drawn from within that community. Which makes me wonder, as I turn my thoughts again to the question of value judgements: what might vernacular criticism look like?
Images all taken from the gallery on the project’s website.