Wednesday, October 06, 2010

52 weeks, 52 fringe venues: Venue #9 Brockley Jack

"Now we look like newcomers!" the man at the table next to me exclaims.

The woman with him sits down. "But we are newcomers".

"Yes, but we don't want to look like we are".

I can't help it, I laugh out loud. I'm in the process of reading twitter so it's plausible that I might have been laughing at something I'd read rather than listening into conversations at the next table. But, let the record state, I was not. I was laughing at you, you odd man.

The man's disquiet had been caused by his not quite knowing how things work at the Brockley Jack. Because that's the point with Fringe venues - they're all a little bit different and quirky with how things work. At the Brockley Jack it's a case of waiting for the bell to ring before you go into the auditorium (and it's a big bell so you can't miss it).

I can say this because Brockley Jack is my local. See - that's my smugness right there. Though, obviously, I'm in the midst of going to lots of venues I've never been to before so I think I'm allowed to balance that newcomer-ness out with this venue.

I'm coming to think you might all be getting bored with me going on and on about niche this and niche that but it's something I'm starting to think might be a little important. Brockley Jack are in the midst of experimenting with what their niche might be - they've now got a literary manager and have put in place various schemes to work with writers who have a connection to Lewisham.

[Thought to return to later: to suceed (either commercially or critically) as a fringe venue do you need to have be clearly defined by i)the community you're in and/or ii)the genre/nature of work you do?]

The theatre itself is a well proportioned black box studio in the back room of the Brockley Jack pub. What the space has going for it (other than comfortable seating) is that it doesn't - in my experience - have a problem on the heating front. And by that I mean - you don't boil if there's more than ten of you in there. They do have some odd thing about making you leave they auditorium if the show has an interval, enforced sending to the bar actually pains me more than you'd expect.

But another night on the Fringe means another opportunity to me to fill some gaps in my knowledge of American theatre. Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Wikipedia tells me that it's been made into a film too - though given I know pretty much nothing about film this couldn't help me either. However it is an American family play in the best tradition of American family plays (one room, limited passage of time, lots of secrets, younger generation taking over from the older generation, great female roles - see, I wrote an analysis of 'the American family drama' for part of my dramaturgy portfolio, I knew it would come in useful).

I know this is going to sound like damning with faint praise but I was absolutely blown away by the set of Crimes of the Heart. Just a kitchen it might have been - but the attention to detail was outstanding. There were appropriate magnets on the (beautiful) fridge. There was actual coffee in the coffee maker (which, at one point, one of the actors re-made). And - water actually came out of the sink taps.

I'm going to repeat that in case you didn't realise the enormity of it. I'm in a pub theatre and there is a set so beautiful and well constructed that it has a sink with working taps. I don't think I've ever seen that on stage. This sounds like small things but in a play like Crimes of the Heart small things matter and it made me feel that this show mattered.

The play itself, sadly, is less impressive than the care and attention that had been lovingly given to it. My first inclination that something was up was when I couldn't date the play. You don't always need to date plays but when something's as naturalistic as there being working taps there's a chance that the year (or least the decade) might matter. The clothing led me to suspect we might be somewhere in the last few years and, eventually, a reference to Hurricane Katrina confirmed it. However, it didn't entirely sit right and I wasn't exactly surprised to discover that the play was originally set thirty years earlier.

Which did lead me to wonder: why? Things weren't working for me because though it was clearly well written, well acted and (obviously) well staged - it just didn't speak about now. There was nothing urgent that reached out and grabbed me. It simply was. And, however many working taps you throw at that, I don't suspect that this is a play I'll be writing about at the end of the year.

Fringe Quest Lowdown:

Production: Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley.

Type of space: Black box studio, large comfortable pub serving well priced food and snacks.

Type of productions: Varied - revivals, new work, in house and receiving. Has writer's group.

Nearest Station: Crofton Park/ Honor Oak (not Brockley, despite what the name might suggest)

Seating: Comfortable padded benches with good leg room. Good rake and sightlines throughout.

Condition of toilets: Modern and clean, womens upstairs so expect a little hike.

Bar produce: Full food menu, plus snacks.

Other comments: Wait until you hear the bell before attempting to get into the auditorium then you too can look like a regular.

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