Paradise Found in PeckhamDate: 26 July 2011
I was on my way to the tube yesterday evening when I bumped into West End producer and former National Theatre touring director Roger Chapman. And he was on his way to his regular Monday night curry with my local butcher and friend of the stars, Bob Barrett from Halifax; it's the curry that keeps them both regular.
Anyway, he came straight out with it: "Where are you off to?" Always the hard questions first with Roger. And for once I was able to reply: "I've really no idea." I'd been given an address in darkest Peckham, way south of London Bridge, to catch a special Edinburgh Festival fringe preview of an award-winning show, Lounge Room Confabulators, being presented next month by the Underbelly.
The Edinburgh publicist, Fraser Smith, had supplied me with conflicting travel instructions on three separate occasions, as if he was telling all ten of us -- that's the audience, folks, and all coming from different parts of town -- how to find this benighted homestead somewhere near the Old Kent Road.
So I headed down to London Bridge and took an overland train to Bermondsey. My passport was in order, but I'd made my first mistake: I'd left my maps, compass and spirit level at home. Having marched confidently towards Dulwich for fifteen minutes I turned round and negotiated Peckham High Street. Peckham High Street is the absolute pits, and I'm familiar with areas of Whitechapel and Wandsworth from whose bourne no traveller returns: I love it. Litter flies through the rancid air and dudes in non-stop conversation amble between pubs, taxi cab firms and grocery stores with fierce intent, and they're not chatting about the massacre in Norway.
By now I'd worked out that I should be on the number 63 bus, but my destination was only half an hour away, and I was early, so I continued my stroll through the underworld, up Peckham Hill Street, over a large housing estate and into Burgess Park. I hit the Old Kent Road at last and found the Thomas a Beckett pub, a famous old boxing boozer that has recently been turned into an incongruous "bar club restaurant." A young Chinese boy wearing a plastic titfer and a bow tie on a piece of string round his neck was shaking up margaritas. I'd come to the wrong place.
Doubling back on myself for the tenth time in one evening, and not before I'd clocked the not too distant view of the rising Shard and the reassuring Post Office tower -- the number 63, I now knew, would whisk me back to King's Cross in no time at all; even better, the 168, amazingly, would transport me directly to the top of my own road -- I knocked on the front door of the terraced house that would yield the evening's entertainment.
Inside, I found a few welcoming colleagues, an impromptu feast of wine, cheese and biscuits, and an agreeably absurd performance by two blokes from Oz in which they related some barmy stories using tiny props and puppets conjured from their travelling suitcase.
In Edinburgh, you can book the Lounge Room Confabulators for your own flat through the Underbelly. You must have a quorum of ten and you don't get to speak to the two performers. They knock on the door and get going. When they finish, they get going. There's a tragedy in a tin box, a naked encounter in a sexy morgue, eye-gouging with ice-cream cones and some charming ditties accompanied on guitar and ukelele.
But why were we in Peckham? Turns out that the ubiquitous arts reviewer Veronica Lee lives next door, and our hosts were in fact friends not only of her but also of Fraser Smith who'd unwittingly added his own contribution to the evening's hilarity with his travel instructions.
Hey-ho. On the bus home I picked up David Benson, who boarded at Waterloo after completing another performance in the National Theatre's hit show One Man, Two Guvnors. I told him my adventure and rendered him not only goggle-eyed, but speechless -- which, if you know anything at all about David Benson, is a condition of which he has very little accumulated experience.
And I told him how, right at the start of the evening, I'd bumped into Roger Chapman. And that jogged memories of another site specific "in your own home" theatre show many moons ago, when Acme Acting (as they were called, so they'd appear first, or nearly first, in the Edinburgh fringe alphabetical listings) used to knock on the front door in full costume and come in to perform A Streetcar Named Desire.
Acme's requirements were few, but they did need a lounge, a bedroom and a bathroom. And a few willing customers, of course. I saw a performance on Haverstock Hill once with Roger, Richard Eyre, Bob Hoskins, Ken Campbell, Jane Wood and Dave Hill... we'd all convened in the Load of Hay pub next door before collecting our load of Tennessee Williams in the front room. So, despite the exoticism of my journey, there really was nothing new or all that suprising awaiting me in Peckham after all. Nothing new under the sun, in fact. Acme really were the acme.