Inside Out

Feature in Issue 16-2 | Summer 2004

Katie Etheridge reports on the 10th Anniversary Streets of Brighton Showcase – not all of which was in the street!

A new dimension was bought to this year’s showcase, in the shape of the ‘Famous Spiegeltent’. An original 1920s travelling dance salon and sideshow cabaret marquee, complete with wooden dancefloor and cosy mirrored booths, it became an interesting backdrop for new work. A halfway house between the streets and traditional indoor theatre, the Spiegeltent reflects a long European history of popular performance in temporary spaces, from fairground booths to travelling tented theatres and circuses.

The use of this space was made more interesting by several companies presenting the same work both under canvas and outdoors. An enjoyable example was Speakeasy Theatre’s The Radio Show. It’s 1912, and three eccentric characters are demonstrating the wonders of wireless communication to the Radiograph Society. A beautifully realised Heath Robinson-esque set and inventive use of sound support this comic re-enactment of an early radio broadcast. Proceedings are led by Paschale Straiton’s marvellous bespectacled, twittering Miss Tweedy. The clever time-lapse device during her long technical lecture has great comic potential and could be developed into a longer sequence for more laughs. The audience interaction, however, was a bit clunky, and the ending sudden and downbeat. The piece was less effective outside the atmospheric cocoon of the Spiegeltent and lends itself more to a theatrical or site-specific setting (a musty church hall perhaps).

The Spiegeltent was at its best when integral to the work. This cannot be better demonstrated than by Ragroof Theatre’s Make Do and Mend, which transported audiences back in time to a 1940s tea dance. The wooden floor is bought to life by dancers of all ages energetically jiving away to big band music.

Just as the audience is getting comfortable with their cuppas, there is an air raid siren. The dancers scatter, and the story begins as a gawky female narrator spills a tin of buttons onto the floor. From these buttons flow a montage of memories, channelled by the six-strong cast. Local people’s reminiscences of living, loving and longing in 1940s Brighton are beautifully evoked through text, movement, gentle comedy and powerful soundscape. Three female performers, gorgeous in pillar box red 40s dresses, seem to totally embody the period as they create exquisite, clear images through elegant gestural choreography. However, the role of the fantastically kooky button curator needs clarification. As instigator and outsider, when skipping from omniscient narration to first person reminiscing, the character loses its definition and blurs with the others. It is difficult to think how else this genuinely poignant piece could be improved. A live band perhaps? Maybe this will happen in Ragroof’s next planned collaboration with older people, a bandstand tour.

Heading outside… Walkabout relief came in the form of the Comic Character Creations Co. whose new Hairy Flashers elicited screams of horrified delight from a gaggle of office girls hanging out of a window and slightly unnerved giggling from passers-by. The Sleepwalkers, also new, did not offer such instant gratification as they wandered along zombie-like in their pyjamas, mumbling unconscious nonsense. It was The Lost Ramblers, an established piece from the company’s repertoire, who claimed the streets as their own. The militant map-wielding walkers gathered delighted followers as they caused compulsive interactive mayhem: climbing over security barriers, sitting down in front of a car and marching into shops.

Looking Glass’ new Walking Tables was a genuine oddity and surreal eye-catcher. From a distance they look like two giant wedding cakes: closer up you see that each is a table groaning with cakes and topped with an elaborate birdcage containing a growling, gurning head. Brave spectators fed cakes to the disembodied damsels through the birdcage doors. It was weird and wonderful enough without the accompanying musicians.

Being a local radio addict I was tickled by the Strangelings’ Bramble FM (‘Radio so local you can smell it’), which took the form of a live roadshow broadcast from a caravan. Despite a less than ideal siting and not being able to see DJ Maureen inside the caravan, I lost track of time passing the dutchie on the left hand side and discovering that I can in fact blow up balloons. I could have been there all afternoon if it hadn’t been brought to my attention that the piece is a three-hour installation.

Other highlights included flattery-to-go from the Complementary Compliments Service, dada dance from The Freds and witnessing several genuine ladies of a certain age watch the wonderful dry-land synchronised swimming team Ladies of the Waves by Dodgy Totty.

After tramping the streets for two days it didn’t seem to matter whether a piece was under canvas or open sky, walkabout or static – it just had to work in its context. As ‘the street’ is not a fixed, unchanging place, the best shows interacted with or reflected their environment in some way. Here’s hoping the next decade will bring more and more high quality, sensitively sited and perhaps site-specific new work to the Streets of Brighton.

Streets of Brighton is produced by Zap Arts – see www.zapuk.com The Famous Spiegeltent website is www.spiegeltent.net

This article in the magazine

Issue 16-2
p. 22