Phoenix from the flames

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It’s quite astonishing how much of your heart you can give to a place.

A memory. I’m holding hands with a stranger on a sunny afternoon in East London. We’re here as part of Walking:Holding, Rosana Cade’s generous and thoughtful walking tour through the city. As we look up at a church, its spire sharply outlined against the blue sky, this particular stranger tells me that this is where she’d like to get married. Then she turns to me. Where would I like to get married? I still don’t really know how I feel about marriage; as an idea, it feels abstract and far away. But somehow, in spite of my ambivalence, I find myself offering an answer. Battersea Arts Centre.

Perhaps it’s because part of me already feels wedded to BAC. Of all the theatres in London, it’s probably the one I spend most time at. There’s not just one thing I love about it. I love the work and the ethos and the people and the beautiful, beautiful building. I love its history as an old town hall and the way it’s built right into the community. And I love all the memories, big and small, that have seeped into its brick and stone over the years.

It’s where friends of mine have been convinced for the very first time that theatre might be something they could love. It’s where I first saw Forced Entertainment and Caroline Horton and Kate Tempest and Little Bulb. It’s the theatre in London where I’ve always felt most at home, whether visiting for a show, a cup of coffee or an evening in the bar. At times, I wanted to become an artist just so I could run away and hide in the bowels of that building for a few weeks.

Yesterday afternoon, a fire broke out at BAC. The extent of the damage still seems to be unclear, but it started in the roof of the Grand Hall, which has been destroyed. When I first saw the news on Twitter, I couldn’t quite breathe. It took about an hour of scrolling through updates, messages of support and devastating images (along with an awful lot of swearing) for it to really sink in.

I feel sure that BAC will carry on, but not alone. If the organisation means even half as much to you as it does to me, please give what you can, be it a fiver, a tenner, or simply a helping hand. Here’s a link to donate, and no doubt in the next few days it will start to become clear how all of us can pitch in to get BAC up and running again.

If there’s any scrap of a silver lining to take from this, it’s how much our theatre and arts spaces really matter, as powerfully demonstrated by the steady outpouring of love and support since yesterday afternoon. And we can continue to offer that support. BAC has captured so many of our imaginations; let’s reimagine its future together.

KARAOKE, Battersea Arts Centre

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Try not to think of a stage.

Try not to think of a screen.

Try not to think of a boy and a girl.

Try not to think of a karaoke machine.

Try not to think about the end of the world.

To be completely honest, I’m not really sure how to write about KARAOKE. The first time I saw Sleepwalk Collective’s haunting, hallucinatory show was in Edinburgh, where I was emotional and sleep-deprived and found the whole thing quite mind-alteringly trippy. At one point in the show, the karaoke machine at the centre of it all describes the audience as “sort of woozy and credulous and sad”. Seeing it on the Fringe, I thought: yep. Yep, that’s me.

Inevitably, seeing it in the course of life’s more regular rhythms lends the show a different impact. It’s not quite so woozy, but no less strangely compelling. The central conceit is there in the title: performers iara Solano Arana and Sammy Metcalfe read aloud and obey instructions from a karaoke machine, all of whose text is projected onto a large screen at the back of the stage. They remain trapped throughout in some kind of nightmarish limbo, condemned to read from the tyrannical machine until the text stops – if it ever does.

There is, of course, a big old metaphor for text-driven theatre embedded in the form of the show. And at first, with its self-referential nods to audience and performance space, it seems like KARAOKE is just more theatre about theatre (not that I don’t love theatre about theatre). But at some point this meditative, deadpan, stealthily intoxicating show expands into something more. It is also about life and death and meaning and chaos and love and sex and birth and legacy and time and media and screens and pop culture and machines and catastrophe and apocalypse. The future is already written. Everything is inevitable. Read on.

The space that KARAOKE inhabits is somewhere in the join of things, in the cracks between the paving slabs. It highlights the gap between thought and feeling, between imagination and reality, between text and performance, between instruction and action, between the real and the performed. For the length of the performance, we too float somewhere in that space, text and images flashing relentlessly before our eyes. Time twists and warps and meaning feels like quicksand.

There is no singing in KARAOKE. But it shares with the best pieces of music that extraordinary, slippery ability to completely alter the mood of its audience. And as with songs, it’s impossible to pin down exactly what it is that’s so powerful. Somewhere between the deadpan delivery and the low hum of background music, between the coloured lights and the cloud of mist that cloaks the stage, the show takes hold and won’t let go. We, like the performers, are at the mercy of the karaoke machine. Read on.

P.S. Meg Vaughan and Mary Halton both played blinders on this one, so go and read their (much more interesting and inventive) responses.

P.P.S (and also *SPOILER ALERT*) Can those of us who have seen the show just pause a moment to appreciate that kiss?

Wot? No Fish!!, Battersea Arts Centre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

History. It’s just one fucking thing after another, right? Wrong – at least if Danny Braverman has anything to do with it. In Wot? No Fish!! Braverman depicts history as a helix: spiralling steadily upwards, seeming to return again and again to the same place, only to discover that in fact the world has changed. The past can be present, but never in quite the same form.

The same goes for the art that sits at the centre of Braverman and director Nick Philippou’s show. Wot? No Fish!! tells the story of Braverman’s Great Uncle Ab, a Jewish shoemaker raising his family in the East End of London. Ordinary enough, you might think. What is extraordinary about this particular family history, though, is the astonishing document of his life that Ab left behind. For almost 60 years, Ab drew weekly pictures on his wage packets for his beloved wife Celie; love letters in another form, sketching both the ecstasies and tragedies of their life together.

Wot? No Fish!! is their story, played out against the tumultuous backdrop of the early to mid 20th century, and the story of Braverman discovering these images decades later. As Braverman sifts through Ab’s wage packets, the past is located in the now, revealing that what we are so often looking for in history – particularly family history – is a trace of ourselves. The way in which Braverman shares these drawings with us, pointing out details and making gentle speculations, makes the piece about him and about us just as much as it is about Ab and Celie. With so much of this relationship inaccessible to us, we like Braverman are left to colour in around the edges.

The drawings themselves are tiny yet oddly exquisite. As Braverman shows them to us one by one, we can observe Ab developing as an artist, starting with basic doodles of kitchen utensils and graduating to acutely observed scenes of domestic life. We see Ab and Celie as newlyweds in the 1920s and then as the parents of two sons; we see them battle through the relentless anxiety of the war years; we watch as they grow old together, Celie barely ageing a day in Ab’s loving depictions of her. And perhaps most extraordinary is the compulsive honesty of Ab’s art, which is as likely to show heartache as joy.

Given the huge scope of Braverman’s inheritance, this show can only ever be a fragment – a partial image, like Ab’s drawings. But the care taken in the selection and crafting of the piece is palpable. Braverman welcomes us warmly into his family history, making the audience feel like family by extension. We could all be part of one massive Friday night dinner, trading anecdotes over the fish balls (yes, contrary to the exclamation of the title, there is fish). Community, a quality that theatre so often reaches for, is created simply and unfussily.

Like two strands of a double helix, simplicity and complexity are bound together. Yes, on one level this is just about one family, laughing and crying and struggling like us all. But through this one family and the particularities of their everyday life, Wot? No Fish!! opens out into ideas that are much bigger than itself: love, the value of art, the movement of history, the finding of meaning and hope in narrative, and how, even when the path stretches treacherously ahead of us, we find the optimism to go on.

Photo: Malwina Comoloveo.

Sketches of Love

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Originally written for The Guardian.

It’s hard to imagine a more complete depiction of a relationship than the one that Danny Braverman unearthed in a dusty shoebox five years ago. Laid down over almost 60 years, the 2,500 or so images were the work of Braverman’s great uncle Ab Solomons, a shoemaker who started scribbling pictures for his wife, Celie, on the back of his weekly wage packets in 1926.

Beginning in London’s East End, where Ab worked and lived, the drawings trace the evolution of a marriage, as flirtation gives way to bickering and domestic contentment is ruptured by painful events. There are bedroom scenes where Ab jokes about his snoring; and others where the quarreling couple are locked in stalemate. One is annotated with the telling words, “I can be as obstinate as you can.” We see the growth of Ab and Celie’s two sons, and the growing spectre of illness. Celie is a constant presence, pictured forever as she was when the pair married.

There is an extraordinary honesty in Ab’s refusal to skip over the agonising episodes in his life with Celie. “These aren’t cartoons; this isn’t being funny,” Braverman says. “As an artist, he had a compulsion to tell the truth.”

“I challenge anyone to find a more comprehensive picture of one person by another person,” agrees Nick Philippou, the director who helped Braverman bring Ab and Celie’s story to the stage. “It’s so vast and so relentless.”

Flickering away in the background is the social history of the 20th century, from blitz to boom to bust. Not surprisingly, anxiety pervades the drawings made during the war years. “It’s so monumental, it becomes like a Greek tragedy,” Philippou says. “And, like a Greek tragedy, it talks of all the things we can’t avoid: birth, life, death.”

Braverman, a writer and performer, shares his great uncle’s story in Wot? No Fish!!, which is about to begin a run at Battersea Arts Centre. Somewhere between a lecture and a performance, the show is delivered by Braverman himself, sifting through his surprising inheritance. Of the many questions the piece asks, Braverman highlights the way it prods at notions of high and low art. “What is the value of art in our lives?”

Philippou breaks in: “And who’s allowed to make it?” Both men describe the wage packets as an example of outsider art, but they are adamant that Ab is an artist by any standards. “Whenever anyone uses the word doodle I say no,” Philippou insists. “It is art, and it’s fantastic art.”

The outsider emerges as a recurrent theme of Ab’s art and of the show. As the son of Jewish immigrants, Ab was something of a marginal figure himself, with antisemitism casting a shadow over several of his drawings. In a Britain where immigration is once more the subject of fierce public debate, this is where the show’s subtle but insistent politics is located.

There is also, I suggest, a modern resonance to Ab’s compulsive sharing. What he depicted in art, we now publish on social media. In the same way that Ab’s drawings give equal space to death and trivia, as many Twitter posts are devoted to the serious as to the silly.

“It’s very different,” counters Philippou. “What you do in a tweet is you spend 10 seconds doing it; what you do with a work of art is you make it. You don’t make a tweet.” What has been lost, Philippou and Braverman suggest, is craft and care. “It does make you wonder about that mode of communicating – where is it now?” asks Braverman.

The answer, perhaps, is in the theatre. Wot? No Fish!! is not one but two stories, Braverman says. “There’s the story, and then there’s the story of the story. There’s the story Ab draws, but also the story of my discovery and my connectedness to it. It is about history in the present.”

“Somebody said the show is an act of love,” Philippou recalls. “I think that’s probably true, but it’s only true because Ab’s work was an act of love. The best way to love somebody is by not looking away. It’s continuing to look.”

Little Bulb

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Originally written for The Stage.

Novelty has become something of a raison d’être for Little Bulb. Since forming at the University of Kent and making their name with Crocosmia, a sweetly ingenious tale of three orphaned siblings, the theatre company have pursued fresh challenges for each successive production. Be it mounting a gypsy jazz opera from scratch in Orpheus or learning to dance for Squally Showers, they are always seeking new skills.

“Each show should be different,” insists director Alex Scott, “either thematically or stylistically.” Their quest for new challenges has led them down unexpected avenues, hopping from intimate character pieces to physical work to musical epics. Scott suggests that while some companies are happy to hone their expertise in one genre, Little Bulb’s members “tend to be a bit flighty”. As founder member Clare Beresford adds, “why should you shut something down just because you’ve become accidentally known for one thing?”

Discovery is embedded in the company’s way of working. “Normally we start with a name,” explains Scott, “and then part of our process is to work out why the show’s got that name and what the plot is. We like having processes where you will find out as the process is developing what’s happening to the characters.”

If any connecting strand has emerged throughout their work, it is music. But even this, it transpires, was something of an accident. While all the founder members were passionate about music, it was only through working together over time that this became a vital ingredient of their productions. “It’s just grown and grown through something almost irresistible,” says company member Dominic Conway, whose instrument of choice is the guitar. “There was never a grand plan and early on music wasn’t really in our mission statement.”

Crocosmia, which was first created as Scott’s end of year project at university before making waves at the Edinburgh Fringe, used a record player as a central prop in the narrative. From there, the company began incorporating live music into their shows, first in sprawling folk opera Sporadical and then in Operation Greenfield, which explored the awkwardness of adolescence through the story of a Christian folk band.

“Music is very powerful,” says Scott. “It’s a way of accessing emotion and portraying emotion in a way that sometimes naturalism struggles to.” In more recent work, this investigation of music as a theatrical tool has been taken even further. Since 2011, the company has taken their music into new territory by performing as a band under the name Goose Party, while Orpheus demanded them to master a completely new genre: gypsy jazz.

The show was born from a “really open” commission from David Jubb at Battersea Arts Centre. “His brief was ‘we’d like you to create a show on a bigger canvas’ and it literally could have been anything,” Scott recalls. Little Bulb hit on the mythical narrative of Orpheus and Eurydice, which they paired with legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt to craft an intricate show within a show. The company recruited additional members, learned new instruments and upgraded to the imposing space of BAC’s Grand Hall.

The show, which is being revived for a second run this spring, offered an opportunity for the company to stretch their ambition beyond the intimate work that had gained them their reputation. They explain that the support of BAC was essential in this jump from small-scale to mid-scale. “Sometimes you do something that you would never do because somebody else has trust in you,” says Beresford. “If somebody has faith in you taking the risk, there’s something very freeing about that. It adds extra pressure, because you don’t want to let people down, but it also gives you the impetus to do something.”

Little Bulb admit that they have been lucky to have this kind of support throughout their career so far, both from BAC and from their producers Farnham Maltings, who “actively support our sort of contrary genre-shifting”. Perhaps their greatest genre shift to date was the one they embarked upon for last year’s Edinburgh Fringe show Squally Showers, which saw them ditch the instruments and put on their dancing shoes.

“We wanted to do something completely without live music,” says Scott, acknowledging the abrupt departure from the style that had won them a faithful following. “Although we never like to disappoint an audience, we just thought this is a challenge that we need to do for ourselves. We wanted to do something that was accessing a physical language rather than a musical language and see where that would take us.”

The resulting show uses dance, movement and a series of long, wordless montage sequences to tell the madcap story of a television news studio in the 1980s, mixing politics and pirouettes. Scott admits that “some audiences were completely confused by it”, but stands by the show as an important creative exploration for the company. Scott intends to take elements of what they have learned forward into future projects, adding, “I don’t think we’d be intimidated by a dance sequence in a show now”.

What has endured through all of Little Bulb’s shows, albeit in varying ways, is their fascination with character. Scott is interested in placing the company’s carefully drawn characters in a world “where it is naturalistic but also anything else is possible, so you’ve got all that potential for dreams and metaphor and all of those things, but they feel like real people”. Beresford agrees: “I find it really freeing that you can use something so solid but in a structure that’s so free”.

In developing the compelling character dynamics that drive their narratives, it helps that Little Bulb are extraordinarily close-knit as an ensemble. The group all live together while making their work, an arrangement which, as Conway explains, allows the creative process to be as flexible as possible. “Sometimes you really crack an element of the show lying in bed at night having a bit of a chat, or you hit upon a really good idea over breakfast,” he says. “It’s great if you can just turn up at 10, do the work, have a lunch break and come back, but in practice you never know when the good ideas are going to come.”

“We like working as a group of friends,” Scott adds. “Even if you’re just chatting and becoming closer as people, then that shows on stage that the ensemble is very close.” But this practice of spending every minute of the day together does also have its drawbacks. “On the flipside, it’s hard to turn off, which has its own dangers as well,” Beresford warns. “Where does work end and life begin?”

For now, work and life are once again blurring, as the company’s hobby of playing gigs as a band is about to become even more central to their work. Little Bulb are just starting work on their first album, rekindling some of the ambitions that inspired Goose Party. “We’re just doing it for the love of experimentation and to see what comes out of it,” says Conway, while Scott laughs, “it may not reach the higher end of the charts”. If nothing else, it’s a new challenge.

Photo: James Allan.