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Last time I visited Battersea Arts Centre, the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk had taken over the building and transformed it into a Gothic landscape for their thrilling take on Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories (The Masque of the Red Death, 2007-8). That was five years ago, but I was still careful not to sit too close to the intake room before tonight’s show started: back then, it was a crypt, and I distinctly remember a dead woman rising from her grave and climbing up the stairs towards me! It just goes to show how versatile a space Battersea Arts Centre is – a real gift to both performers and audience. You never know what you’re going to get!
It was a stroke of luck that I was able to experience The Most Incredible Nothing, a one-off showcase for BAC’s Homegrown programme participants. I chanced upon the event listing while browsing the venue’s website and the narrative immediately roused my interest: an imagined future dystopia where stories are forbidden, and an underground movement to save the art of spinning tales. The description intriguingly evoked Ray Bradbury’s seminal novel Fahrenheit 451 and, being a writer with an academic interest in literary responses to restrictive societies, I was eager to see how the cast had explored this subject.
I found myself in the Council Chamber, a moderately-sized upstairs space, with no actors – and, to the consternation of some of the audience, no chairs – in sight. I was beginning to wonder if this was all some sort of elaborate prank when from a side door burst a pack of young people, all strangely dressed in black wigs and honking a military-style tune through kazoos. They promptly herded us into the middle of the room encircled the audience, standing over them on chairs, introducing themselves as the “Radical Storytelling Enterprise” and diving straight into a haunted house story complete with torches under chins and spooky sound effects. It was a startling beginning to a show full of surprises, which managed to skilfully navigate the fine line between quirky and irritating. It certainly grabbed our attention.
Having participated in amateur productions myself in the past, I am always keen to support them, but others may be more wary – there’s no guarantee of quality where the acting’s concerned, and a lack of funding means you can often be greeted by sets that are as wobbly as the performances. Shows like The Most Incredible Nothing hopefully will go some way to challenging that preconception. This group of 18-to-25 year olds had clearly put all their energy into the performance, and there wasn’t a weak link among the 20-or-so actors involved. This is no mean feat in a show that incorporated physical theatre set-pieces, dance routines and singing, and that was moving and amusing in equal measure. Props were deftly handled by the cast. For a segment in which the actors revealed “the last time I cried”, two buckets of water were placed at either end of the stage and the performers gamely drenched their faces after telling their stories, safe in the knowledge that a box of tissues was about to be handed round. At another point, a disco ball was attached to the lighting rig above our heads for a scene about a music festival, and there was also some imaginative use of torches which flickered on and off like fireflies. This created a magical atmosphere out of very little.
The Homegrown programme at Battersea Arts Centre is structured round a series of workshops run by resident artists and companies. A closer look at the most recent schedule reveals the various inspiring opportunities offered for young people. The October and November workshops dealt with multimedia performance, autobiography and issues of race and gender, among other topics, all of which were explored over the course of the evening during The Most Incredible Nothing, the sessions acting as a springboard for creating their own piece of theatre. With help from director Neil Callaghan, they explored their own experiences and how these could be turned into art. As we were told at the end of the show, it had all been put together “from nothing” in just 2 months, highlighting the dedication and effort of all involved.
It seems petty to pick holes in a performance of this sort, but I will confess to feeling at times that I was watching one big drama exercise – perhaps an inevitable result of the devising process – and I felt that only a few of the stories were allowed to speak for themselves, due to a tendency to illustrate events using dance and movement, which didn’t always work in the case of the most personal and touching narratives. One section saw the cast present a living, breathing African landscape, which – although it admirably tapped into the performers’ heritage – never truly became a story in its own right. At other times, however, the mixture of acting styles worked perfectly. A hilarious dance routine based on a shortbread recipe was a particular highlight.
During the final section (when each performer gave a short statement about how they would like to be remembered) the wigs that had been worn by the cast throughout the show were removed, emphasising the performers’ individual identities and showing the vast variety of ethnic backgrounds represented. It was a powerful moment that underlined the importance of access to the arts – a point reinforced by the BAC’s innovative “pay what you can” ticketing structure, which meant that anyone with a pound or more in their pocket could afford to see the show. This served as a guarantee that you’d get your money’s worth. The BAC is part of an encouraging trend to encourage access to theatre (in a similar vein to the National Theatre’s Entry Pass scheme for those under 25, and the Barclays Front Row tickets offered by the Donmar Warehouse). Shows like The Most Incredible Nothing breathe new life into theatre, and BAC Homegrown should be applauded for enabling this kind of performance to stand alongside the work of more established companies. More of this sort of thing, please – I for one will definitely be on the look-out for future Homegrown pieces.