I use the term ‘eulogy’ here in its simplest form, to mean ‘writing in praise of something’, rather than suggesting that performance in London is (heaven forbid) dead: I am in fact delighted to report that the performing arts are veritably throbbing with vitality, as far apart as Waterloo, Hackney Wick and Sloane Square, which is where I have spent the past three evenings.
On Thursday 11 February I went to The Vaults in Waterloo to see a play which was part of the Vault Festival: something I can’t believe I’ve never done before. The venue is buzzing: it is uncannily like stepping out of London and the winter altogether and into one of the venues at the glorious Edinburgh Fringe. Atmospherically low-lit tunnels are plastered floor-to-ceiling with flyers and posters for the various productions showing, and the bar areas are overflowing with young and old, arty types and (there is, it must be said, a high beard-concentration) hipsters. The play was Don’t Waste Your Bullets on the Dead: a new piece by young award-winning playwright Freddie Machin, and it was everything fringe theatre should be: brilliantly acted by its cast of three (Naomi Sheldon, Ben Dilloway and Ciarán Owens), with no need for the extras in terms of classy set and tech that a high-budget production can afford. The plot, about a playwright’s escape into writing from a relationship she isn’t sure about, was compelling and heartfelt in its portrayal despite many (great) moments of surreality, and the script witty and delivered with beautiful timing. Though the show itself is now finished, Vault Festival continues until 6 March and I shall certainly be trying to catch a couple more shows before it ends.
The following evening was press night for Re:Home, a new verbatim play about the beleaguered Beaumont Estate in East London, created by Offstage Theatre and directed by Cressida Brown. Again the production took me to a fringe theatre I hadn’t been to before: this one, I didn’t even know was there, which is a reminder of how much there is going on in London night after night. Never mind the rats, I maintain that you’re never further than a few feet from good theatre in the capital. The Yard Theatre in Hackney Wick was apparently recently voted #2 best theatre in London by readers of Time Out, so I would appear to be a little behind on this, but it’s a great little space: I am particularly a fan of a steep, amphitheatre-style rake. The play was gathered from testimonies and interviews of residents and workers on the Beaumont Estate, and was a ten-years-later revisiting of the concept: the original play, Home, having been put together by the same company in 2005 when the three tower blocks which comprised the estate were about to be pulled down. Again, the production had a small cast: four in this case: Waleed Akhtar, Hasan Dixon, T’Nia Miller and Rose Riley, and again it was stunningly acted – honest and moving but also at times very funny. The actors’ portrayals of real people of all ages who’d met and spoken to the director truly captured their humanity, and allowed the audience a chuckle at very recognisable mannerisms and characteristics, without ever being caricatures. The play felt very relevant to the community upon which it was built – and I felt that I’d have loved to watch it in a room full of those who might have recognised the people it portrayed, but even for me, coming from the other side of London altogether, it was a way in to understanding and appreciating the joy and the frustration in one of the many parts that make up my home city. The production continues until 5 March and I heartily recommend it.
In another completely different part of the city, I spent the following evening at the Cadogan Hall in Sloane Square, where the Amadeus Orchestra and conductor Philip Mackenzie were joined by Russian pianist Alexander Karpeyev for a performance of Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano concerto, followed by a screening of Brief Encounter. I love the intimate yet open space of the Cadogan Hall, and notwithstanding a very poor front-of-house decision to allow a stream of latecomers in and three disruptions in the front two rows, right beside the pianist who played heroically on, it was an extremely enjoyable concert. I’d never seen Brief Encounter in full, either, and it was a great environment in which to watch it, particularly because the now older lady who had been the little girl in the film (in fact Celia Johnson’s niece) was present in the audience. We all applauded and cheered her one line in a lovely moment of audience-camaraderie.
There is so much to see in London: not absolutely everything is good, and sometimes, just sometimes, I do wish I’d just stayed at home. But these were three brilliant, and brilliantly different evenings, and I felt extremely lucky to live where such things were only a train or tube or two away.