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Michael Coveney: High wire acts in Barnet & St James

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It was high time I visited the artsdepot in Barnet, north London, and the opening of a new show from Ockham's Razor, an authentic cutting edge company, was as good an excuse as any. Actually, it was high time I caught Ockham's Razor, too; like the artsdepot, they've only being going for about eight years, so I was running late on two fronts.

The artsdepot is a showcase arts centre combining youth, community projects and work across all performance and visual media disciplines, and it has the most amazing facilities; two theatres and four dance studios, for a start. It's like a great light-filled tardis landed in the centre of a traffic island in the middle of Whetstone High Street, surrounded by traffic, shops, cafes and a bus station.

Obviously, if you're allergic to performance art or modern dance, you wouldn't want to go near the place. But if you're heartily bored with Cirque du Soleil (who isn't?) or the low-level physical and intellectual pretentiousness of, say, Forced Entertainment (though their loyal fans and student drama groups are not), Ockham's Razor could be your bag.

The name of the group refers to a 19th century law of economic parsimony, but I guess that here it has a more general application in the idea of a complexity of meaning achieved through simplicity of means.

Well, anyway, the new show, titled Not Until We Are Lost, is a most beguiling mixture of acrobatic gymnastics and dance circus played out by two handsome men and two fit women on a steel structure that looks like a giant boiled egg slicer. The slicer part of it swings like an unhinged portcullis, having first served as a sloping playground climber through which the quartet execute intricate trapeze moves and adventurous slithers and slides.

These human chimps have emerged from a tall plastic glass tower filled with paper; no, I don't know what any of that means, either,  but as pure dance movement with immense physical skill, it's absolutely breathtaking.

Then suddenly, their rituals are reinforced by a choir (comprised of local volunteers) which materialises among the promenade audience and the beautiful, ethereal harp music composed by Graham Fitkin and played by Ruth Wall. We are gently shepherded around the darkened space by one or two of the singers guiding us with a long rope, which we, too, can hang on to, like characters crossing a ravine in one of those old black and white jungle movies.

The big structure moves and heaves, and three of the actors are discovered in a steel musical stave, or maybe they're just parallel bars, the boys competing for the athletic favours of the girl, who swings dangerously around like a top class Big Top trapeze artist, executing a series of virtuoso holds, reverse grips, sideways lurches and those gymnasium exercises you always dreaded having to do on cold Thursday mornings at school.

The artsdepot, which I've driven past hundreds of times without ever knowing it was there, is clearly an important local destination. I spent several hours in all there with young mothers and tiny children in the "soft play" area, two Japanese story-tellers sewing props and costumes in the smaller of the theatres, schoolchildren hanging out, actors rehearsing or passing through, and yet more children in the gallery showing an exhibition of soft toy scultures. 

Theatres always hope they might have such a life in the daylight hours, and the new St James in Victoria is offering bar and brasserie service from morning to midnight. Like the artsdepot, it's tricky to find in a sort of Bermuda Triangle of the new glass commercial city surrounding it. And I fear for the brasserie with all those new bars and restaurants that have sprung up in the area's transformation behind the Victoria Palace.

But once you're there, you feel comfortable. It helps that the opening play, Bully Boy by Sandi Toksvig, is worth seeing, too. Lady Lucy French, the redoubtable development director, had rounded up a good first night crowd; with Biggins and Cilla Black in the audience, not to mention Su Pollard and Peter Sissons (who's usually at every Bill Kenwright opening), it felt as though a proper new West End theatre had been recognised.

My colleague Henry Hitchings thinks the ticket prices are too high. I agree - all theatre ticket prices are too high - but not for the same reasons. The St James, being entirely unsubsidised, is under no obligation, social or otherwise, to offer cheap seats if it doesn't want to.

They'll only want to when the audience doesn't turn up - as the sudden rush of price reductions in the West End proper currently testifies. But for the moment they're probably banking (sic) on a niche market of posh Pimlico types and local office workers piling in to see Anthony Andrews whizzing round the stage as a testy major in a wheelchair.


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