Wednesday, September 22, 2010

52 weeks, 52 fringe venues: Venue #3 Southwark Playhouse

Last time I visited Southwark Playhouse I got a little bit of a shock at the discovery that the chair which, until a couple of months earlier, had been residing in my living room was now in the bar. When I say that I don’t mean some copy or Ikea identical, I mean the VERY SAME CHAIR, complete with marks from where Dean’s cat Jelly had put her claws into it. Now, once we followed the chain it was fairly simple how our living room chair had ended up in the bar of Southwark Playhouse (in short, when your landlady is an actress, London theatre circles are very small indeed). But, let me be clear, this did not stop the weirdness. Because I expect lots of things from Fringe venues, but not necessarily anything to do with my living room.

This time, however, the bar has had a little bit of an upholstery refurbishment and Streatham-Living-Room-Chair is no more. I’m not sure if I consider this a good thing or not. But, as much as I like the bar in Southwark Playhouse a lot it isn’t really the reason I’m here. As ever there has to be a play in here somewhere.

I enter the auditorium where the Boiling Frogs actors are hanging around on the stage chatting.

“Hello” smiles the one closest to me.

“Hi” I say back, trying not to make it sound like I am wondering what I am going to be made to do next. Though, obviously, I am.

“Would you like to get involved straight away?”

By being the first person into the auditorium – damn my obsessive compulsive time keeping – I have asked for this.

“Go on then” I smile. Because I’d like Actor to think I’m not phased by this. Though, obviously, I wonder what he’s going to make me do given my brain has been pulped by three hours of Rupert Gould.

“I need to build a ladder”. And indeed there are a series of wooden pieces on the floor.

“I don’t think you could have picked a worse person to do this”. For though I am a genius when it comes to lego construction (if I do say so myself) my practical ability to construct unknown pieces in to something that (most likely) will have to hold a human at some point is not exactly something I would brag about.

“First rule of acting – pick the person who is least likely to do it well”

I laugh. I like this actor. I like him even more when he decides to help me, what with the fact that I wouldn’t have a clue where to begin.

Then the Stage Manager approaches us.

“You’ve put it together back to front”.

We both look at the ladder. The pictures are, it is clear, the wrong way round. At least I can say that I did warn him.

We laugh.

“And that’s why we have a Stage Manager”.

Ladder assembled I shake hands with the actor and return to my seat where, because I am prompt at this unallocated seating lark, I have managed to acquire a seat with a cushion. There’s a fringe lesson in there right away: get in early. Or bring your own cushion.

Other unwitting audience members are brought on stage to build various props whilst some more are asked to write things on cards. Though what I do not know. If I were to write an essay-piece on this show this is where I’d be talking about Brecht and reminders that we’re in a theatre and what we’re seeing is a play. But I’m not (at least yet) so I’ll just let it hang there.

The most basic premise of Boling Frogs is that we’re deep in the bowels of a police station. Outside there’s a carnival going on. Inside a man has been arrested for holding an illegal protest. It is England in 2010 gone only slightly askew.

The Factory conspire so that every aspect of the production layers and re-layers the disconcerting sense of claustrophobia that engulfs us all. The cell (and stage) shrink before our eyes, the audience is pulled closer together, lights flicker, noise builds. My reaction to the sound of a drill in an offstage room might forever be pulsed with fear due to The Pillowman but I suspect even without this theatrical shorthand I’d have been bloody terrified.

What I’d talk more about in that theoretical essay-article – beyond the theory of Brecht – is complicity. In Boiling Frogs complicity matters a lot. On what we (both as individuals and as a society) choose to accept, what we choose to challenge, what we choose to ignore. We might be aware that this is fiction but at every turn we’re confronted by our involvement. Characters shout for help, cry for answers, look directly at us in some last glimmer of hope – and yet we, the audience, provide them with nothing other than our silent looks. We don’t get up and change the outcome. We’re static. Bystanders. And yet, as we made the props that litter the stage, wrote words on the cards offered, we helped make their world. As a call for action on the gradual reduction of civil liberties it’s a soaring battle cry.

My shorthand question for all new work is “why now?”. Boiling Frogs is urgently, noisily, passionately now.


Fringe Quest Lowdown:

Production: Boiling Frogs by Steven Bloomer (The Factory)

Type of space: Sprawling arches under London Bridge. Studio space and "The Vaults". Atmospheric (i.e. barely lit) bar.

Type of productions: New work by emerging companies and practitioners. Also strong educational and community remit.

Nearest Station: London Bridge (as you might imagine from it being under the arches)

Seating: Flexible show to show. Boiling Frogs configuration puts it in the round with very few padded seats. But then (see theory above) that's all part of the discomfort they're hoping to achieve.

Condition of toilets: Good. And better lit than the bar.

Bar produce: Didn't purchase anything on account of being whizzed up on coffee after seeing the matinee of Earthquakes in London.

Other comments: Seriously, go see Boiling Frogs. Then go see it again. And don't be surprised if your living room furniture ends up in the bar.

1 comment:

Jake said...

I'm so glad to hear that you enjoyed the show - I was worried that I was singing its praises whilst all the other notable bloggers/critics were keeping quiet on it. (Heaven knows why, as I honestly loved it!)

I couldn't help but feel that there was more to it than just what I felt and wrote about in my review.

Even now looking back on it, and reading the odd snippets of references to Brecht and the discomfort in the seating... it all adds to the piece, whether it is knowing or not.

The blank staring as audience members as they shout through the walls - how we just sit there and watch, not offering to help... it really does add layer upon layer of meaning to the piece.

I'm so glad that I managed to make it along to see this. I honestly can't wait to see what The Factory bring about next.

They're a company to watch out for...