Monday, 29 November 2010

Catch Up!

Time is speeding by now in the build up to Christmas and there barely seems to be a moment to take stock. On Thursday Patsy, Ben and I went with the Applied Theatre students over to Rich Mix in Bethnal Green to see Tongue Fu, another packed evening of performance poetry and rap. The event had less variation than the previous gig back in September, but there were some class acts including the rather brilliant A F Harrold.

Friday was full on in preparation for the A Political Cabaret in the evening, which went really well - the Dolche full to bursting. Afterwards I crossed over to the theatre to catch Level 3 Theatre Arts production of Love and Money by Dennis Kelly (see above). Just as with The Blue Room a couple of weeks ago the work really demonstrated the huge strides that has been made this year.

On Monday night I headed down to Heathside School in Weybridge to work with their year 13, developing ideas for their exam verbatim theatre piece which explores the role of letter writing. We had a really good session using mobiles and headphones to record and playback stories about significant letters and correspondences to each other. Interestingly a couple of them had never handwritten a letter and those who had, had only ever done so to grandparents. Inevitably it's a dying art and this began to frame some of the discussions. Are typed or texted missives less valuable or romantic than those that come from the flow of a pen and if so why? Is it because they're less spontaneous, easier to edit, less sure in authorship? Why is signature so fascinating?I'm going back in in a couple of weeks to see how the work has developed.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Working on the Cabaret.

Had a smashing day working with the Applied Theatre Level 2 on the second A Political Cabaret. It's amazing how quickly the group have grown in confidence - partly I'm sure as a result of their initial success - and how much material they're now producing. We looked at 36 sketches this morning and began to make some cuts and edits with some stuff being kept in reserve for the final gig right at the end of term. In the end we slimmed the programme down to 25 sections, some short and snappy, some more developed and had begun by the end of the afternoon to put together a running order.

There was lots of stuff on the Royal Wedding, some more poignant reflections on the tenth anniversary of troops being in Afghanistan, a couple of clever pieces on the Pope, some excellent poetry and a neat sketch in which George W Bush water boards Laura to find out where she's hidden the remote control. Overall the material seemed to have more quality to it this time round and I'm hoping that this will be mirrored in the way they play on Friday night.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Filtered Shakespeare.

Down to the Rose to see Filter's striped down version of Twelfth Night which has been doing the rounds for a few years now. Like Blasted it was originally directed by Sean Holmes, but in tone it couldn't have been more different. This was anarchic, playful and tremendous good fun; completely in the spirit of the kind of misrule which is so joyfully championed in the play.

I can't ever remember the revelling being so inclusive and boisterous as tequila and pizzas were handed out amongst us and the music got louder and louder. In this context Malvolio's intervention came as the most personal of affronts and there was never any doubt from that moment on that we were all responsible for putting him in his place. It was childish, but so rewarding.

As you might expect from such an enjoyably petulant attack, much of the poetry and lyricism of the play was lost - but I don't think for a moment that the production aimed to catch all and the subversion and silliness seemed very welcome on a cold winter's evening in Kingston.

I was really pleased I finally caught it.

Monday, 15 November 2010


To the Lyric to see Sarah Kane's Blasted, which Stef has been assisting Sean Holmes to direct. When it was first produced at the Royal Court in the mid nineties it caused a huge storm and seemed to mark a watershed, a return to a more direct, visceral form of writing. Quickly the critics announced a new movement proclaiming playwrights as diverse as Sarah, Mark Ravenhill, Anthony Neilson, David Eldridge, Philip Ridley, Joe Penhall and Rebecca Prichard as belonging to the new stable of In-Yer-Face theatre. Why suggest when you could tell and why tell when you could show?

In-Yer-Face certainly fitted a mood and a time - the fag end of both Major's government and the millennium itself and in it's own terms kind of tried to shock itself with it's own depravity, of which Sarah was the queen. It was partly an effort to wake everybody up in a time of slumber and partly just an explosion of talent unafraid to write fast, loose and for small intimate spaces. It felt vital then.

Fifteen years on I was shocked by how quickly dated this play has become. Its vanguard power gone, all that seemed to be left was a bitter attempt to reveal cruelty and evil in its purest form. Nothing is redeemed, nothing is ambiguous and ultimately for those reasons nothing ultimately hit home. Despite some really good work from the actors and a meticulous production it was a strangely dislocated hour and a half.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Demos and Democrats..

It's been a quiet afternoon in Drama St Mary's as many of the students headed up to town to take part in the demonstration over the proposed trebling of student fees. I was really pleased to find out so many had gone. It's the first time since the march in protest over the invasion of Iraq that there's been a momentum to take part in some form of mass public protest and perhaps the first time this generation of students have been exposed to the immediacy of direct action. As the afternoon wore on it became apparent that some sections of the march had broken away and tried to break into Tory headquarters at Millbank, overrunning the ridiculously small amount of police on duty.

On the TV it began to look like a return to the eighties; lots of condemnation for the aggression from student leaders and politicians alike, but the story stayed top of the news agenda all day. Late this evening Siobhan sent a message to say that none of the SMUC students had been directly involved.

Meanwhile back on campus Margaret Ritchie, the new leader of Northern Ireland's SDLP, gave a fascinating lecture on the problems of being a moderate in the province. Since power sharing her party have been slightly marginalised as the traditional republican vote has solidified behind Sinn Fein. She talked about the threat of maintaining an entrenched position with regards a united Ireland and instead positioned her party firmly within a social democratic tradition of progressive change. The most fascinating thought was that more and more protestants are now joining her party, raising the hope that in some distant future the political debate might move away from purely sectarian concerns and begin to advance towards strategic issues over governance and representation. It was an optimistic view, but one based on a real belief that communities can and want to live and work together.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Hackney Central.

Early morning trip up to Hackney with Tina, Paul and the Level 2 Applied Theatre students for their first look round Sutton House. Naomi met us and again gave a lot of time to explore and look round. It's going to be an interesting challenge trying to put the show in here and already logistics are become the primary concern.

There are two spaces large enough to house full company and audience. The charming central courtyard which is overlooked by every room of the house an provides a trapped oasis of calm away from the busy traffic on Homerton High Street and the fairly soulless Wenlock Barn, purpose built for performances - but the only place in the house to which the students didn't warm. Other spaces are perfect for intimate storytelling and shared experience but need careful management to enable accessibility and flow. An early plan might be to divide the stories, the space and the audience into three and then carousel round on a twenty minute cycle with business written to manage crossovers back in on of the larger spaces. It would mean everybody saw everything, but not necessarily in the same order. We could then just focus on three stories. The Knight's, the Miller's and The Wife of Bath's? Timing would be vital and we'd have to be great at improvising to fill in the inevitable gaps - but I can see a rough shape.

The students seemed very enthusiastic about the place and got on brilliantly with the National Trust staff. I can feel a really productive relationship building.

Afterwards we wandered down Mare Street to visit Artburst - a business set up by Amy, Tina's niece, which has one a hatful of awards for providing innovative arts and drama based projects in the East End and beyond. Amy and her colleague Penny have grafted for five years to make the company economically viable and generously spent the best part of an hour talking to the team about how to make a small business work. It was inspiring and invaluable advice.

Sunday, 7 November 2010


Went with Orode to the National last night to see the first preview of FELA!, the Broadway musical based on the life of Nigerian Afro beat pioneer and anti-corruption activist Fela Kuti. It's a great messy, joyous show that feels oddly situated in the Olivier, where there is hardly space to stand let alone dance between the lavender coloured rows - but is sure to be a great rolling hit over the next few months.

Set in 1978 at Fela's final concert at the infamous Shrine club in Lagos, the piece really celebrates Kuti as showman and draws attention to the political content of the music, telling a rough version of Nigeria's post-colonial history in the process.

There are some issues. Fela's personal life, his polygamy, his homophobia and eventual AIDS induced death are nodded at, rather than questioned and there is a clear sense that the Shrine we're presented with is somewhat sanitised for a New York audience, a kind of clumsy fusion of Yoruba attitude and Manhattan chic. More cocktails and polite applause than weed and whooped affirmation.

The high life horns and funky beats are infectious and irresistible, however, and the energy from the cast, particularly Sahr Ngaujah who brilliantly captures the charm and anger of Fela in a showstopping performance, makes you want the evening to go on forever. If the jukebox musical needed a shake up this show, which reminds us of a time when music formed the soundtrack for popular movements and uprisings, might just have the formula with which to do it.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

A Political Cabaret.

The end of the week and Applied Theatre Level 2 students put on the first in what we hope will be a series of topical political cabarets in the Dolche Vita coffee shop. About sixty people came along to see what it was about.

Partly in response to the changing culture of Higher education, partly in an attempt to bring some immediacy to the way students produce work and partly to contradict the tired cliche that they just aren't engaged in the big picture any more - the evening had a number of a range of targets to aim at and for a first shot it seemed to hit most of them.

The material was inevitably mixed, but the pace, energy and commitment of the ensemble company meant that it was never long before a fresh gag or point was nailed and the investment allowed for moments of edginess and risk. There is no time for censorship if the joke's already been said. There was some stand out sketches. A smart cookery programme featuring Cameron and Clegg making a coalition curry, with Clegg struggling to get the cap off most the ingredients, before force feeding it to Vince Cable. A rap attacking the hike in tuition fees, a poem about the danger of occupying the centre ground, a Chilean Miners version of Big Brother and a piece juxtaposing suffragettes with 'McSlutskies' ladettes.

One of the real positives from the evening was that the audience seemed drawn from across the University community. Perhaps in future the material might be local as well as national and international? It could have some impact.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Blue Room

A really cracking production of David Hare's The Blue Room by Level 3 Theatre Arts students last night, setting a very high benchmark for what we hope is going to be an exhilarating year of student work.

The philosophy of Drama St Mary's work is that students move from dependence on staff led input in Level 1, through interdependence in Level 2, to creative independence in Level 3. If tonight's work is a sign of things to come, this is one part of the curriculum and planning we've got spot on.

Fluidly directed by Sarah Marr there simply wasn't a weak performance and it was clear that each moment, line, instant had been explored and made sense of. The particular challenge of the piece for young actors comes in representing the specific intimacy of each scene, finding for their characters the thin line between anxiety and joy that each of the forbidden encounters provokes. That this was achieved with such a sense of conviction and ease is testimony to the company's developing craft and the trust that they must have put in Sarah.

There were a couple of stand out performances. Claire Austin, built on the excellent Hermia she delivered in Spring, to bring an unstated nuanced sense of inevitability to the drug fuelled teenage model. Natalie Standing, who played the actress, found moments of real complexity and truth in her work and Jack Fisher, was pretty much on the money as he explored the tentative, but ultimately empowering journey of a young student liberated by sex, firstly with the family au pair and then an older married woman, ably played by Bianca Barrett and Courtney Conlon respectively.

Really good work.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Grants and Feedback.

A very good morning. Level 1 Applied Theatre Drama St Mary's students, spent last week in rehearsals for The Orange Tree's schools version of The Tempest, which will go on the road later this month, and came back buzzing from the experience. Later in the day Henry, who's directing the show, dropped me a line to say how great it'd been to have them about. It's invaluable to be able to get into rehearsal rooms and see what goes on, especially when the opportunity extends itself. By all accounts they became the initial audience shaping some of the work with their responses and participation. After Christmas they'll start their own schools based project - I hope the work on The Tempest will get them thinking ahead.

By lunchtime we'd heard that our grant bid to SHOCC, the University's fundraising charity, had been successful. It's another £2,500 towards the Community Theatre Centre in Lilongwe. We're also sending a letter out to our colleagues to ask them to donate a small percentage of their monthly salary to the cause. This might bring us another £2,500 over the next twelve months. There is still a big possibility that a further large grant may come from the Freddie Mercury Foundation. So things are moving forward and we might make the £40,000 that we need to secure the building in time for our visit next May.