On Cycle One of Cardboard Citizens Theatre Company’s
HOME TRUTHS SEASON
THE BUNKER THEATRE, LONDON, MONDAY 24TH APRIL 2017
This Agit-Prop structures the house. Located betwixt and beneath The Menier Chocolate Factory, the Bunker Theatre provides shelter to an exciting array of theatrical arrivals and residencies and the Cardboard Citizens Theatre Company’s current Home Truths tenancy proves no exception. Three cycles of three plays will take the venues visitors through a comprehensive overview on current and historic housing policy, uniting and reflecting on human experience and its definition and connection through place. The question raised by the season seems to be to what extent are our satisfactions gained and measured by where and how we live and this is exemplified by the political stylings on offer, that are commenting on the economic and social factors at play today (see what I did there?), along with the provision of alternative perspectives, evident tonight in Sonali Bhattacharyya’s view of Slummers in the London of the late 1880’s, and Heathcote Williams’ (with Sarah Woods’) celebration of his own glory days as a Squatter in Chief, alongside Nick Alberry, Tony Allen, and their numerous cohorts, ninety years later.
The Bunker has been styled to promote a feeling of comfortable, freeform habitation. As you walk down the slide from the street of the unjust to the submerged lair of the worthy, chairs and living/performance space greet you with opening arms. Even the bar is behind a sweet lounge style curtain and a projection screen is reflected making an ideal home for the eye. After an appropriate pause the actors arrive and socialise with each other. The audience are acknowledged and yet clearly kept in their place. This allows us the chance of inclusion without the stress of involvement and the thinking behind this manoeuvre shows us to be in capable hands. The actors fill each part of the space with both gossip and handstands, resembling the elegance of a leopard carefully treading its cage. This slow opening educates an audience about theatre going. This is an activity which requires connection on a different level to the spectator sport of dry entertainment. We will have to think and to listen and sympathise on a human level, separate to the temporary empathy of so much art. The makeshift nature of the productions may be written on cardboard but the legitimacy has the substance of stone and the proper value of flesh.
The actors introduce the season and aims of the project. They inform us as to what we will see and how it will be presented and that the parts will be given out as if just decided, with linking material read and presented, coming as it does from represented characters as well as members of the company. This allows us to feel as creative and indeed as immersed as the players, writers, directors (Caitlin Mcleod and Adrian Jackson), and organisers themselves and shows a level of consideration absent from the self satisfactions of the mainstream theatre, revelling in its own celebrity. This is community theatre in its truest sense; for all, about as many as possible, and interested in reflecting and indeed redefining what a communal, humanistic response truly is.
The first of the three plays on offer Bhattacharyya’s Slummers is an extremely worthy piece, detailing as it does the struggle of one family of working class hatmakers’ residence and need to move from the further reaches of the deprived east end to somewhere further more central. Presented as testimony taking place during an appeal for relocation, it is earnestly played and efficiently written but is certainly the less successful textually, as it calls upon the use of taped interlocution from the unseen judgement panel which comes over in a slightly contrived monotone. Due to the mother’s socialist affiliations and nascient activism the appeal is denied but when the surviving daughter and protagonist (wonderfully played by Mariam Hacque) hastily alludes to and reveals an unforseen family tragedy, which while reflective of the time period in which the play is set, unfortunately becomes less convincing to a contemporary audience and to these tired eyes. Agit Prop pieces of this sort do not need to convince on all levels of course and presented alone the play would perhaps have benefitted, but as will be revealed there was simply more going on in the plays that followed, on all levels, which had the effect of leaving the shadows cast by Slummers across the lights of time, to be somewhat shallower in nature.
As ever, in my view, sets and backdrops trap or unhealthily anchor a play. Plays are a matter of dramatised decision, enabled by actors, props and light and the fast turnaround of furniture and dressing soon transformed the space after a brief slideshow about rising slum property prices, from 1887, to 1970 and the months after, into the place where the disenfranchised psychedelicised burnouts of the 1960’s sought shelter from their warped, purple skies in the post Rachman and recently Cammell, Pallenberg and Jagger stained enclaves of Notting Hill.
Heathcote Williams (with Sarah Woods’) The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Agency bursts into life as the negotiations, challenges and defiance of this new form of lifestyle are presented. In contrast to the first play there is a real visceral sense of energy on display, from soup to nuts as it were, with the opening moments showing the full range and capabilities of the situation these individuals were presented with and how successfully the unknown and neglected men and women society had discarded imprinted their presence on the settled laps and patios of the known. We see just how effective and efficient the set up was. All Williams’ work is informed by research but here his actual life is the resource on offer. There is a famous story from this time concerning Williams and IT’s Mike Lesser in the cells at Bow Street Police Station, as a direct result of his politicisation from this period, but now is not the time to tell it. Suffice to say that the supporting material and references to his infamous poem graffiti of the time (Use your Birth Certificate as a Credit Card, Joyless Work gives you Cancer) along with work produced by the Ruff Tuff Puffers tells us of a far more golden time when the value of all that surrounds us was truly and properly known. Williams has written himself out of the play but those in the know will garner that he was one of the prime movers (no pun intended), organising the estate agency and daily pirate radio bulletin, newspaper and network of information that the homeless of the time relied upon.
Like the Jews rejected by the Pharoahs, or everyone and everything else that feel prey to God’s great flood strop, those vying for the shelter that Jagger and Richards called for made their pilgrimage to the secularity of these All Saint (ed) Road visionaries. From Pius Alexander to Tony Allen, each of whom are represented here to the waifs, strays and innumerable northern chancers, all were embroiled in the constant fight for resettlement and the affronts proffered towards Rachman like landlords like William Bell, presented here as a mixture between a supercharged Ray Winstone and an anally ravaged circus Lion. As in all of Williams’ work, the language coarses through the air like jet sprays or fire; it is like hidden chilli in a scone; Squatters are referred to as ‘unpaid caretakers’ and ‘spiral dancers,’ all of whom pass and go under the sacred name of Wally when challenged by the invasive authorities and recriminations in a deliberate invocation of Spartacus the slave when faced with his Roman oppressors. These inheritors of the hippy aesthetic took that free love for all philosophy and applied to it property and the true rights of man. They squatted to make a point about society and its stranglehold on the poor and the reference to the deserving and underserving poor is telling here, especially as it is a reference also used in Slummers and the preceding introduction. In short it is an arrangement of words that places all of us in direct opposition to our own views on where we are in the society in which we live and where we think the others who live outside of our own capabilities and requirements can be found or located.
These revolutionaries, in using love for the kind of good that moves beyond the pleasures of the flesh and the flower were able to make activism and anarchy its own form of psychedelic, radicalising the streets and air around them. The only unfortunate side of things, other than the fact that the project didn’t continue in the same way in perpetuity is that the outside world were not as influenced or as sympathetic as they should have been. When Nick Alberry, Williams, Allen and co, called for the houses along Frestonia Road to become their own nation, they created a closed Eden, only because of the attitude of those looking on it all from afar. Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove have always offered this potential, from the days of Dickensian Money lenders, African immigrants, recalcitrant hippies to the current Bohos and drug dealers who live if not hand in hand, then certainly mouth to pocket. As Williams tell us, ‘Adam and Eve were the first squatters to be evicted from Paradise,’ under the auspices of an absentee landlord, and the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency is a much valued attempt at creating a serpent free landmass of pillars and gates for the free. The play has been brilliantly staged by Adrian Jackson and the full company of actors move through the play taking on various roles, characterisations and accents with a supreme range of skill. The evening reveals Endy McKay as the current queen of accents of vocalisation and Jake Goode, as chief coraller of care and charisma. Mitesh Soni injects humour and energy, while Andre Skeete provides a towering energy. Richard Galloway, David Hartley, Cathy Owen and Faye Wilson show superb levels of versatility, while Caroline Loncq conquers all as a masterful Tony Allen and Mariam Haque essays the second of her three leading roles with a lasting and moving poignancy.
The final play of the evening, Stef Smith’s Back to Back to Back is a brilliant weaving of the fates and predicaments of two couples living next to each other in South London today. The fortunes of an aspirant construction manager and his newly pregnant wife (played by Hacque and Soni) are balanced by their neighbours, a Manchester born lesbian couple superbly played by Wilson and McKay. As issues of childrearing and rates rise and fall over the course of nine months, so too does the language and style of the writing. At first the supposed naturalism of the dialogue seemed at odds with the stylised poetics of the opening and closing monologues but these then became seamless conjugations as linguistic refrains led to different conclusions for each property. Simple linking words like ‘just’ sent us onto different trajectories, while the predicaments faced by the characters echoed each other. This makes for the truer sense of realism, which is the state in which all dramatic literature is truly housed. In this play, as Stef Smith so eloquently states, gentrification leads to segregation; racial, sexual, social, economic and political, as exemplified and represented by an unmoved and abandoned mattress opposite the flats and an unwanted bag of domestic rubbish. ‘A fox cries as it fucks’ is one of the spectacular sentences that ripple through this play like a nugget of gold in rainwater, as is ‘babies to be born among these bricks and breaths; phrases as beautiful as they will be lasting and ones I encourage you to listen to and out for, when you attend this selection of plays. I am sure the other six will be just as effecting, but these two in particular along with the worthiness of the first led to a true evening in the theatre and reminded you just what that theatre is for.
At the end of the show, the collected company performed live trailers for the upcoming plays, a novel conceit, in tune with the current taste for future info, but perhaps taking away slightly from the purity on offer, but Director and Citizen on high, Adrian Jackson is a man of taste and intelligence. If you seek theatrical direction, he will tell you where best you should go.
All plays aspire to a musical form. Cycle one of this project revealed that the real definition of the ballad is one that tells the human story in ways of humanistic sympathy and the poetry of understanding. The Home Truths are calling. Now listen well, through your walls.
David Erdos 27th April 2017
The season runs until 13th May