Tuesday, August 4, 2015

'Secret Theatre Show' on London City Island, 2nd August 2015

Secret theatre huh? Very mysterious. I didn't have the faintest clue what to expect when I turned up at Canning Town station. A crumpled sheet of directions told me to look for a red bridge and have a password ready for the guard. Soon I was being led past security barriers, across the Lea River and towards a building site. Loitering on the edges of the bridge were three intimidating men in hoodies, catcalling any unfortunate women that happened to pass.

London City Island proves to be a future ginormous conglomerate of luxury apartment buildings, currently a building site. We're ushered into a visitor's centre that's all brushed aluminium, ostentatiously displayed wine and huge LCD screens - where tingling indignation quickly sets in. We live in a city bedevilled by a housing crisis of epic proportions and here we find valuable land gobbled up for £400,000 (at the cheapest end of the scale) flats that will be populated entirely by wankers (or left vacant as 'investment opportunities' for Russian gangsters). With hyper-detailed architectural models around, I have to fight the urge to climb into them and Godzilla them down.

The bright side is that the secluded 'island' nature of the site would make it pleasantly straightforward to dynamite the bridge and watch  the monied residents run out of gourmet hummus, resorting to desperately chewing their leather sofas before, inevitably, turning on one another in a bloody cannibalistic frenzy. Maybe we could make a reality TV show of it. I wonder what Ant and Dec are doing...

But I'm not here for violent class war wet dreams (well, not today anyway) . I'm here to review a play. Problem is, I can't tell you much about it - not even what  it is. I can say that it's a story everyone will be familiar with reconfigured to reflect contemporary East London. Two clashing organisations are now portrayed as working class whites versus a middle class Indian family. It transforms a unrelatable historical conflict into something we can imagine occurring outside our front doors, imbuing with a power absent from most productions.

We follow the performers in and around the site; the action taking place in dusty gravel pits, inside model apartments and on butcher's grass-clad skeleton buildings. Politics aside, the island is a deeply odd place. We're cordoned off from the building site proper, meaning the performance area is one big fiercely curated and controlled sales pitch for prospective residents. This makes it a 'soft place', some urban no man's land that feels up for grabs. It also slots in nicely with the acrimony at the core of the play - two cultures asserting their rights to a unclaimed chunk of London.

It also makes for some neat stagecraft. As the actors shove and scuffle with each other the gravel hisses and pops, clouds of dust being thrown up. Similarly, the mixed backdrop - on one side the ruined industrial detritus of London's manufacturing past, on the other the gleaming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf - is a microcosm of the city's past, present and future. Soundtrack is provided by the regular rumble of the DLR, punctuated with clipped platform announcements from nearby Canning Town station. With low flying planes from London City Airport buzzing us, we can feel the pulse of London all around us, amping up the energy inherent to the play.

I can't really say much more without spoiling things, as the realisation of what you're watching is one of the funnest parts I'll hold back. This is a story that most in the audience will have seen staged a number of times, myself included. But it's one of the most memorable and interestingly performed interpretations of this classic play I can remember. There's a danger and energy shot right through everything: from the vigorous performance style to the evocative scenery to the culture clash that fuels the politics of the piece.

Fair warning though, this isn't short and you will spend a lot of time on your feet. On a practical note there's only two toilets on the island, leading to a big queue right through the interval that remained as the rest of us trooped off for the second act. Finally, it's a play by an author that may frustrate some audiences - several people left mid way through the production.

But it was very much for me - a wonderful experience and a glimpse of a part of London that will all too soon be swallowed up by cement, turf, money and the designer shoe soles of the soulless.


'Secret Theatre Show' is at London City Island until 1st September. Tickets here.

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