Sunday, September 26, 2010

52 weeks, 52 fringe venues: Venue #5 South London Theatre

After the genre issues of Venue Four, Venue Five is bringing up something much more prickly. Yes, with South London Theatre I bring you - amateur dramatics (oh, and another website from 1997, it does seem to be a fringe by-product). Which might be a fairly innocuous phrase were it not for the fact that it comes with some baggage. It's baggage that I confess I carry (as the fact I've brought it up here would suggest). Am-Dram! See what that exclamation mark suggests? It suggests my (and, be honest here, maybe your) prejudices. I even know of a company who (to any fair description) are an amateur dramatic company but who prefer the term "semi-professional".

So - should an amateur company (and theatre) be included in my London Fringe crawl? Does the fact I'm asking that question say more about me than about them? Great swathes of the Fringe is populated by people doing work for free (I've worked for free, my friends have worked for free - it is what is done for few people could mount a fringe show otherwise), should I box "community", "student", "amateur" and "aspiring professional" differently? Equally I'd be ignoring the contribution which amateur dramatic companies make to various communities in London.

I did say I wanted this to make me think.

I confess I probably wouldn't have ended up at South London Theatre's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were it not for the fact that I knew the actress playing Big Mama. I should also confess here: I had not previously seen or read Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I'm not sure it quite matches up to my never having read a Russian novel (don't judge) but I acknowledge: it's a gap.

I was struck, as I'm often struck with plays of this ilk, that it simply wouldn't have been commissioned today. Not only because of the demands it makes on casting (though, maybe, Mr Williams might be able to get away with that) but because of its length and pacing. Three Acts Mr Williams? Surely a nice tight 90 minutes will do. And, really, do you need to use the phrase 'cat on a hot tin roof' so much? And talking - these characters talk a lot. Part of it's simply a vogue we currently have here in the era of the one act play (though I'm happy that the appetite people have demonstrated for unashamedly big plays like Jerusalem, August: Osage County and Clybourne Park might remind everyone that one act isn't always best). But you need, as you do in Shakespeare, five minutes or so to 'get your ear in'. I've often said that books teach you 'how' you should read them, and plays teach you how you should 'listen' to them. And you need time to adjust when you're existing on a diet of one act new writing.

I quickly realised I was principally listening to the play rather than watching it, deciphering Williams's writing (which, in and of itself, is a pleasure). A choice of play from the canon it might be, but not an easy choice. It hardly needs saying - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is hard to play and makes huge demands on its actors. And if that sounds like damning with faint praise then it's not intended to be. It's difficult and tense and riddled with emotions just below the surface - and that's true for any production. At times I was bored, at times I was totally, completely in the moment, at times I was submerged in Williams's words.

Did it ring with urgency? No. Did I regret spending my evening in its company? Absolutely not.

Fringe Quest Lowdown:

Production: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams

Type of space: A converted fire station. Two studio spaces plus a bar. Undoubtedly due to licensing arrangements it is a private members club so you either need to be a member or be the guest of one.

Type of productions: All amateur dramatics but a programme which takes in classics, new writing and, this season, something involving space vixens.

Nearest Station: West Norwood.

Seating: In 'Prompt Corner' (where Cat was) traverse setup with ample rake both sides. The other space is end-on, again with a good looking rake.

Condition of toilets: Fine, though only two in the women's which means, you guessed it, a queue.

Bar produce: Standard alcoholic no-fuss fare at incredible prices. Seriously, 60p for diet coke. All alcoholic drinks under £3.

Other comments: The building doesn't open until an hour before the show and there isn't really anywhere near to 'hang around' discreetly. So, erm, don't be too early.

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