‘If Stockton can’t come to Las Vegas, Las Vegas can come to Stockton!’ So says Johnny, star of Johnny’s Stuntshow, who’s revving up the Friday night crowd here in Market Square – the epicentre of the Stockton International Riverside Festival. Well, more than that: the epicentre of Stockton – apparently there’s been a market on this site since the 14th century.
Stockton-on-Tees, in case you don’t know it, is a northern town not too far from Newcastle that was once at the heartland of the British industrial revolution: the Stockton and Darlington Railway was the world’s first regular rail route – Stephenson’s Rocket pulling the carriages that ferried coal miners back and forth daily. Nowadays, Stockton is fighting to survive: its castle has gone (replaced by the Castlegate Shopping Centre), and there’s little in the way of work. The railway station is hardly used. An empty waiting room boasts a sign warning that ‘drunken revellers from Middlesborough, Thornaby and Yarm’ will not be tolerated.
Yet the place is far less gloomy than I’d pictured it: yes, there’s drab call centres (just about the only local industry nowadays) and rows of boarded-up shops – but there’s also the prettily-lit Millennium Bridge across the Tees, some nice old waterfront buildings, and a bustling high street (well, two High Streets, but that’s another story) that seems to specialise in jewellery shops. There’s a surfeit of old-fashioned barber shops – the red-fronted, gilt-signed Paul Henry’s is the prettiest – and although there’s the usual identikit coffee companies and a depressingly large drive-in Burger King, there are also proper tea rooms, and plenty of independent and resolutely down-to-earth eateries with names like Tommy Tuckers and Barnacles. There’s also pubs a-plenty: the coiffed and lip-glossed ladies of the town frequent Georgia Browns, whereas The Stag, whilst not actually boasting a ‘men only’ sign, might just as well, as it’s frequented exclusively by elderly male drinkers in threadbare pullovers and dingy grey trousers who peer out through nicotine-stained nets. Of course nowadays they have to sit outside to smoke, so there’s always a park-bench-full of gents staring gloomily over at the street arts shenanigans across the road in Market Square.
Which is where, on this balmy summer’s evening, the slightly podgy daredevil driver Johnny and a nameless lank-haired sidekick are strutting round inside a metal-fenced enclosure that has a rusty Ring of Fire construction in the middle, and a marquee to the side bearing the legend ‘Johnny Goes Olympia’.
The gathered crowd is mostly families and teenagers – Stockton may be the town that God forgot, but SIRF has been going for decades, so this is a street-arts-savvy audience, who twig pretty quickly that our two stuntmen (dressed in a hotch-potch of ill-fitting racing driver leathers) are not all they purport to be… They are, in fact, German street arts company Bangditos.
So it begins, and the twosome make increasingly botched attempts to manoeuvre their souped-up VW Beetle up the ramp and through the ring. The car limps round in circles, and our two heroes perform a few low-grade acrobatic tricks, leaning out of the car’s front windows. Then, the lank-haired sidekick abandons the car for a miniature motorbike, and he and Johnny have a bit of a drive-off. Eventually, Johnny also gives up on the car, leaving it driving itself round in circles, Herbie style. My friend’s gentleman friend tries to explain how you do this with a car, something about a ‘toe-in’. Or maybe it’s a tow-in. Anyway – back to the car: there’s a lot of banging and crashing, wheels fly off, things catch fire, and the whole thing eventually goes up in smoke.
It all goes down well with the locals, although there’s a bit of a debate amongst the arty festival participants about whether the audience really get the irony, or are taking it all at face value. But I think they get it – I’m sure they do. It’s my first visit to Stockton, but it’s clear, seeing the range of work presented at this festival – from the high-end large-scale Wired Aerial Theatre show As The World Tipped (‘Arts de la Grue’ as someone cheekily dubbed this big-crane-dominated show, reviewed here) to Reial Companyia de Teatre de Catalunya’s furry-costumed shop window animation Bunny Me – and witnessing the audience responses, that this is a community that understands how to play the street arts game.
This becomes really clear the next day, at Red Herring’s live Punch and Judy show, That’s The Way To Do It. This is the third time I’ve seen this one, and Stockton is by far the liveliest audience – grandmothers shout abuse at the policeman, kids are quick off the mark to volunteer a list of offences committed by Punch and Judy (‘She killed the monkeys!’ ‘He threw the baby on the floor’) and there are raucous whoops and cheers when the policeman’s trousers fall down.
Rain stops play for most of the afternoon – including the second afternoon’s performances for the show I’m working on. I’m here with Ragroof Theatre forBridges y Puentes, a site-responsive show made in collaboration with French company Vendaval, and presented here in Stockton under the auspices of Meridians, a consortium of European festivals. Bridges is set in a multi-storey car park… except our car park got taken out of action by its owners (first time it’s been painted in ten years and they choose this week!) and the show ends up being sited partly on the ground floor of a disused shop, and partly in the outdoor car park next to it. A little bit of rain we can handle – but this is torrential. Still, mustn’t grumble – we managed two shows the day before, received well…
Also at Stockton were another Meridians-supported show, Scuba Club Collective’s Images of Villages. I caught the last ten minutes of this one the evening before. Placed on the other side of the town hall to the Stuntshow, it’s about as far away from it’s neighbour in style and content as you could imagine, being a very gentle exploration of pan-European traditions, featuring recorded birdsong, trance-like dances, and percussive music-making played out on a set made up of broken picket fences, wooden pallets, oil-can drums, and children’s toys. It’s early days for this one, but it did feel a bit like watching a series of workshop exercises rather than a show…
With rain putting a dampener on most of the outdoor action, it was good to have a few indoor ‘booth’ shows to shelter in. German company Fatalia presented a Cabinet (well, back of a truck anyway) of Curiosities called Cabinet Fatalia. Referencing medical display cases and fairground ‘penny arcade’ peepshows, Fatalia mixes 2D photomontage and 3D found object assemblage, a mix of monochrome and kodachrome with a kind of Victorian toy shop meets Fritz Lang aesthetic. There are faces everywhere, ‘real’ and artificial: miniature plastic robot-heads, Venetian masks, and spirals of tiny neon skulls. Real hair, filmed eyes, and photographs of leggy models and arm-waving astronauts. Fish-scales, fish-tailed mermaids, and fish-eyed lenses. Butterflies and birdsong, fossils and clockwork. There seems to be some sort of theme of the fight to tame nature, or artifice versus nature, and the more you look the more you see.
Most people seem content with a few minutes inside but I get a bit lost in the worlds within worlds, and find that a good half hour or more has passed by the time I emerge. By now, the rain is easing off and the plucky people of Stockton are back on the streets, ready for whatever might next turn up to entertain them…