Friday, November 18, 2016

Review: 'The Residents' in New Cross Gate, 17th November 2016

In the long run we're all ghosts. Vast swathes of London housing dates back about a hundred years: bricks and mortar that have borne witness to everything from V2 bombs to flower children. If you live in an old house you find yourself wondering about those who trod these floorboards in years gone by, imagining what kinds of drama might have taken place within the walls you now reside. And one day, future Londoners living in your house will imagine you.

Teatro Vivo's The Residents saves us the trouble of imagining, placing us inside a room in a house (the location shifts every week) and spinning a ghost story that spans centuries. The conceit is that we're there to view the property, our group shown about by Debbie Korley's enthusiastic estate agent. But before too long the radio is emitting distorted screeches, the lights are flickering on and off and someone.. no, something is scuttling around the skirting boards.

Soon the former inhabitants of the building make an appearance, all played by Kas Darley and Mark Stevenson. These range from a Ukrainian woman fleeing the war and dealing with a grumpy elderly builder, a primly buttoned up Edwardian couple and a mournful looking pregnant woman. Director Sophie Austin gradually weaves these vignettes, together with the estate agent framing device and some VO from local residents, into a pointed political comment on property as 'homes' and the importance of local community.

First and foremost, despite its haunted house trappings, The Residents isn't particularly scary. You're not going to jump out of your seat in surprise or feel a burning sense of dread. That's largely down to the simple fact that the ghosts are all too human and empathetic - less vengeful spirits seeking justice and more echoes of the past only able to passively affect the present. Similarly, the spooky sound effects are maybe a teeny bit Hammer Horror.

But while not scary, it is interesting . I enjoy playing detective in theatre, and assembling the big picture from the morsels the show doles out is satisfying. You begin to pick up on the connections between each era and the way that the neighbourhood has evolved around them. The flip side of this that it's  frustrating when you can't figure something out. One mini-story revolves around a wife's dark secret, as far as I can tell we're never explicitly told what it is. Also, a side explanation of two black holes colliding to cause the phenomenon we're seeing is entirely unnecessary.

Where the show unambiguously succeeds is in its stance on the current housing crisis. The housing market is a linchpin of the economy, with houses increasing viewed as an investment or business opportunity rather than as homes to live. This commodification has accelerated enormously over the last twenty years, with overseas buyers, buy-to-let and unscrupulous landlords sending prices skyrocketing way beyond the reach of the average Londoner.

The Residents calmly and straightforwardly railing against the idea of the property market in favour of homes and local continuity. After all, if a neighbourhood is composed of isolated, transient strangers then who has the impetus to make long term improvements and build community relations?

This is absolutely a show with its heart in the right place - politically it hits the nail right on the head. But as a piece of drama it falls a bit short, its knotted narrative of past residents never quite unravelling into coherence. It's a shame, the idea of a show gliding between different properties and telling their stories as it goes is a potent one, but in this instance a bit more storytelling discipline would go a long way.


The Residents runs until 3rd December. Tickets here.

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