Chris Grady: Look beyond Zone 2 for exciting theatre
There are so often cries that the West End is filled with star classics, megamixes and old musicals. If that's your impression (PS it's not mine) then you need to challenge yourself to go outside Zone 2. Whilst it's likely that The Mousetrap and Stomp will continue to be on the doorstep of the Ivy for many years, and your path from the Groucho is likely to take you past Jersey Boys for some time to come, there is plenty of exciting new stuff out there for you to discover.
Firstly let me put a marker down that the above challenge is not lain at the doors of the main critics. They are already trying to pack 6-8 shows a week into their lives, with time to write and observe the political scene as it unfolds across the nation and beyond. My challenge is to all of us who go to the theatre and then tweet, blog, chat about what we’ve seen. It's easy for everyone to explore the merits or otherwise of Viva Forever or The Bodyguard, I put in a plea for all of us to look over the edge.
Last night I was at a powerful, disturbing and stonkingly well acted new play by Tim Luscombe. A far cry from his beautiful adaptation of Mansfield Park which was produced out of the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. Last night was Kimalia, commissioned by Mountview Academy of Theatre, and premiered with fine direction by Anthony Lau and a beautiful stage setting by Rhys McDowell.
Drama schools can, and do, take risks by bringing to the stage new and challenging work. They have the luxury of big cohorts of diverse actors, and last night was a treat. I will give nothing away except to say that you will be disturbed by much of the (true) content on asylum seekers, and you will be challenged with your expectations on gender and sexual relations. On a day when same sex marriage was passing through a stormy be-suited House of Commons, the Mountview students were looking at the underbelly of a love which, in many countries, dare not speak its name – let alone walk down the aisle.
Kimalia runs till Saturday at the Bernie Grant Centre, three minutes walk from Seven Sisters Station, which is 15 minutes on the Victoria Line from Oxford Circus. Have an adventure... and if you’re early I recommend the Spanish omelette and a mug of tea at Charley’s Café.
But there’s more. On Monday I had a free night, so I tweeted to see who of my followers had ideas for me. Top tips came back with Feast (running for a good time yet), Lift (not playing Mon), DreamThinkSpeak (sold out), Metamorphosis (sold out), Vertical Line Theatre’s Lineup at Greenwich Theatre. I hadn’t been to Greenwich for ages, and it seemed a perfect crazy thing to do – go see a new company doing seven scratch new plays - they probably need some cheering along on a dark Monday night in the big house of Greenwich Theatre.
I arrived. The bar was packed. The audience was buzzing. And by the time we sat down I was bemused to see a completely full house. We watched seven extraordinarily tight pieces of new writing by Olga Nikora, Caroline Dixev, Lucinda Burnett, Jonathan Skinner, Stacey Haber and David Hofberg, Elizabeth Muncey, and Andrew Maddock.
I don’t remember ever seeing a scratch night without a dud - surely one or more weak link is to be expected. There wasn’t one dud. I know little about the writers. I learned a little about Vertical Line from the ever-resourceful James Haddrell, director of Greenwich and champion of this and many young companies. Created by Henry Regan, Ross Stanley and joined by producer Steph Connell they grew out of directing programmes in London, and featured recent drama school graduates given some cracking material to get their teeth into.
The event is a great opportunity for casting directors and emerging producers to see 22 actors who have been auditioned and gathered for their skill with new work. And my sense is that almost all are eminently castable. James gave the new company the theatre for the day. The company did an amazing job packing the theatre. And the audience in turn fed back some funds into the theatre’s coffers by drinking goodly amounts of beer, wine and brandy. I will most definitely try and find their next date in two months' time, and be back. They are planning to be in Edinburgh this year so check out their website www.verticallinetheatre.co.uk.
I am delighted that Greenwich council has seen the value of the arts in their area and confirmed with James that they will not be culling their arts spend. The young people and residents of Greenwich are in a better place than those in Somerset, Newcastle, Westminster and others who are slashing support for the Arts. I wish Social Services and all those who support the people of Somerset, Newcastle and Westminster well with their citizens in the long-term. Savings on the arts today will have a long term effect.
As one European prime minister (not our own) is reported to have said when challenged with prioritising arts and health – if I cut the arts I will have to build more hospitals. It will take 5-10 years for the real effects of arts cuts to be felt by communities, by which time I am sure all our noble politicians will be in the Lords or back on the Boards of international industry.
Those who then run Greenwich Theatre, Bernie Grant Centre and Vertical Line Theatre will continue to be struggling to support the communities they serve. And writers such as Tim Luscombe and those seen at the scratch will continue, I hope, to challenge us to think about our world, on the edge, beyond Zone 2.