A Breathless Sprint

Feature in Issue 24-2 | Summer 2012

Charlotte Smith at Camden People’s Theatre’s Sprint Festival.

At least two performers do a treadmill routine during the Sprint festival. In one case, it’s a moment of revelation, breathlessness and beauty. In the other, several espressos, a heart-rate monitor and some manic movement create a moment of, well, just breathlessness. Such is the magic of theatre.

The Sprint festival, in its 15th year, took place at Camden People’s Theatre over four weeks in March. It’s been put together by CPT’s new artistic directors: Brian Logan, a long-standing performer with Cartoon de Salvo and critic for Time Out and The Guardian, and Jenny Paton, a former producer, publicist and project manager.

The programme seems pretty packed. Pieces I missed included Your Last Breath by Curious Directive, My Robot Heart by Molly Naylor and The Middle Ones, and Greg McLaren’s Symphony for Audience and Performer. Subjects range from cancer (Brian Lobel) to Zeus, Hera and Hercules (The Games by Spike Theatre).

In A Duet Without You, Chloé Déchery tries dancing a pas-de-deux or singing a duet alone; loneliness, alienation in modern cities and technology are perhaps some themes. There are quite a few one-man shows, both by more established artists, such as Fringe First winner Jamie Wood (Beating McEnroe), and those perhaps better known in other contexts, such as Shunt associate and Chris Goode collaborator Tom Lyall, who presents his first solo work (Defrag_), or Jess Latowicki of Made in China (A Fault Line).

Avon Calling by The Other Way Works is performed in an audience member’s house (within 30 minutes of CPT by public transport) and The Reservation by Ellie Harrison and Jaye Kearney at the Best Western hotel in Swiss Cottage. Eating Our Words by Coffee+Sponge is designed for just one audience member, while Future Ruins integrate live television in Malaise Trio.

Kazuko Hohki presented Incontinental, which features Lancaster bombers, audience aerobics, an outsize white feather boa, swirling planets and Japanese bedside tales. But there’s no escaping that this is a play about faecal incontinence.

Funded by the Wellcome Trust, it is greatly helped by the onstage presence, patience and fluency of Alastair Forbes, professor of gastroenterology and clinical nutrition at University College Hospital. In tandem, Lewis Barfoot and Colin Carmichael revel in cabaret, from the ‘disco dysentery’ number to Incontinental Airlines.

The detail and depth of the show are impressive. The real-life story of ‘Minimouse’ is perhaps most poignant: in her mid-twenties, she is suddenly left doubly incontinent after a difficult childbirth. There’s the city commuter who counts steps between public conveniences on his way to work, anatomical precision, and some startling facts. It’s all rich material, and the subject matter of bowel and bladder just seems to bring out more panache and pizzazz from the performers.

Talking of which, New International Encounter (NIE) developed Tales from a Sea Journey on a container ship travelling from Le Havre, France to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, performing it valiantly, on the night I attended, to a party of tweens.

Their trip becomes a framing device – initially rather obvious, but subtler at the end – for three stories told concurrently. There’s Ella, a Norwegian fisherwoman who cheats death only once. The Danish teacher, Elizabeth Flensburg, who pours over her maths textbooks in the late nineteenth century, but still falls for a leather-clad stranger. And the cack-handed Second World War naval officer, Captain Mathieson, who shoots his dog, ignites his boat and drifts to Java.

NIE live up to their name, with humour, conviction, narration in Norwegian, comic translation and physical skill. The captain resists and obeys onstage instructions, hallucinating with ease and leaving girls in stitches. His three-part puppet of a dog fails to die with comic aplomb. The final a capella song by three women, after another has gone missing, is gently haunting. However, overall, Tales from a Sea Journey feels less edgy or moving than some of the company’s other work. It’s not entirely clear which age group it’s aimed at, and the stories are perhaps slightly safe.

Sprint takes risks with both the Starting Blocks artist development scheme and two evenings of bite-size performances called Short Cuts. However, Keine Angst by Ira Brand falls sadly flat, feeling contrived and monotone. It aims to explore phobias but steadfastly does not scare you, and the one-woman format is unforgiving.

Perle, in contrast, is full of promise. Dancing Brick have collaborated with the illustrator Serge Seidlitz and drawn on the medieval poem ‘Pearl’. Tantalisingly, I’ve been told by the PR company that it’s a Cardinal Rule that work in progress can’t be reviewed (‘I’d get into trouble,’ he said). So… it’s the story of a young father coming to terms with grief… there’s some bemused mime and a little of Krapp’s Last Tape... oh, and it has the running, the really good onstage running… One to watch.

Sprint Festival ran at Camden People’s Theatre 9-31 March 2012. www.cptheatre.co.uk