Friday, January 27, 2017

Review: 'The Litterati' at Vault Festival, 26th January 2017


If you're going to stage a play about a subterranean London subculture, The Vaults is definitely the place to do it. Nestled under the Victorian brickwork of Waterloo Station, with trains periodically rumbling like thunder above, it's long been one of my favourite cultural venues. Familiarity with the place has never diminished the excitement of walking through the spray paint tang of Leake Street and into the damp, gloom and mustiness of the tunnels.

Shrapnel Theatre's The Litterati follows would-be journalist Millie (Eleanor Crosswell) as she hunts down the eponymous group. Inspired by an article in Vice about secret London communities, she hopes to write about this secretive and quiet group that live off the grid, emerging only to participate in riots and shoplift. Sensing a scoop, she convinces them to allow her to observe them for a week, interviewing them about their lifestyle, past and philosophies.

Hattie, Millie's girlfriend, is sceptical. Millie is posh, private school educated and sheltered - in Hattie's opinion remarkably ill-suited for interaction with an underground anarchist group. First contact seems to prove her right, Millie sounds as if she's wandered away from the Henley Regatta and the members of the Litterati treat her with justified suspicion. But as they get to know each other both parties loosen up, the group regarding her with curiosity and amusement and she becoming increasing attracted to their romantic rejection of society (and also hunky anarchist warrior-poet Twix (Andy Umerah)). But is she getting in too deep?

There's an echo of Fight Club in the way playwright Isla van Tricht sketches out The Litterati. As Millie quickly discovers, freedom to do what thou wilt is intensely seductive, enjoying the liberation of shedding the bondage of corrupt society and scraping a living from the margins. Granted, there's no croissants and Prosecco on the margins, but giving up trivial luxuries is a fair trade for absolute freedom, right? 

Millie is used to build an increasing sense of cultural tourism, leaving me recalling Pulp's Common People - "everybody hates a tourist / who thinks it's all such a laugh". Van Tricht is quick to point out that the members of the Litterati are there by necessity more than choice, making Millie's Rose-wine wielding intrusion a little insulting. The best of this is when her plea that she has "nowhere to go" is angrily rejected by group leader Dux (Sarel Rose), who rightly points out that there must be friends or family whose sofas she can stay on. It's a timely reminder, especially pointed on a freezing January night, that there are people who really do have nowhere to go.

The themes of righteous civil disobedience, the inability of the middle class to truly grasp desperation and philosophies of social power and dismantling authority are all extremely relevant. But, unfortunately, as a piece of drama this falls somewhat short.

Much of this is that this group of dangerous revolutionaries consists of just people who spend their days getting stoned and reading books. It's pointed out that things were more once way exciting, but that just begs the question of why not set the play then. In practice, the group feels like a pretty straightforward group of squatters, the idea of them being something more stretching to one of them reading a bit of Foucault. If the idea is that they're worthy of attention for being literate squatter anarchists, that just feels a teensy bit insulting to their real world equivalents.

On top of all that, any narrative where a gay woman is turned straight after spending a couple of days with a buff dude leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Okay sure, it must sometimes happen and perhaps this particular example is grounded in the personal experiences of the author or performer - but it's a seriously regressive narrative element in a play that otherwise has a strong progressive bent to it.

There's a decent idea of the core of The Litterati, but this production needs some refining to really make the most of it. I deeply dig the criticism of cultural tourism and the way dabbles in the philosophy of resisting authoritarian power structures but it's hamstrung by a limited scale and a smattering of iffy narrative decisions. A shame.


The Litterati is at Vaults Festival until 29 January. Tickets here.

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