It’s been 12 months, to the weekend, since I last visited Darlington, and its Jabberwocky Market. It was wet then, with Fun Palaces fighting gamely against the weather in gazebos by the indoors market, a damp walk from the town centre to Pollam High School to catch Ballad of the Burning Star, and a bizarre, stubbornly interactive take on ‘A Christmas Carol’ as the first tentative wave of tinsel and baubles appeared on the top floor of Binns department store.
This is the fifth Jabberwocky Market. It’s the fifth wave of shows transported with the help of Battersea Arts Centre, and twinned with local produce as part of the Collaborative Touring Network. Five festivals is a lot of festivals, and the project is far from over, though you sense it’s found more of its own shape, an appropriately strange and surprising shape for a festival named after a mythical mirror-beast.
Catching up with festival producer Caroline Pearce, we talk about the journey the Jabberwocky has taken over the past 12 months, the things that have worked and been built upon, and the things that have been cast aside. The latter includes a centralisation of the performances into a single space, while the former takes in what Caroline describes as the innate cautiousness of Darlington audiences. Darlington is not Newcastle, and it isn’t Leeds. It’s something of a liminal town, between garrulous Tynesiders and the more reserved Yorkshire types. It’s not the richest of towns, and has found itself and its cultural landscape in particular savaged by cuts (snicker-snack). What is surprising, and seems to have surprised Caroline and her Jabberwocky team too, is that that question of centralisation versus a more diffuse spread across the town has proven crucial to hooking in those more reluctant audiences:
‘I think there’s something much more interesting about taking shows to lots of different places,’ she tells me ‘What I enjoy about that process is thinking about who the audience are, thinking about what the shows are, and then matching them and finding a space which accommodates both of those things. And you often find that the most unexpected space is the best one.’ It’s why this year’s festival sees Jabberwocky’s most adventurous use of spaces yet, as well as its most populous and enthusiastic audiences.
North-East poet Kate Fox steals the Festival Launch Show, a bit like a non-shit Pam Ayres, but more political, her short poems and stories of ‘taking on the Southern Media hegemony one flat-vowel at a time’ are irresistible, as she describes her residences with Glastonbury and the Great North Run. There’s similarly cockle-warming work from Flex Dance, who present ‘Parked’, the story of an everyday hero, a down and out who weathers the seasons on a park bench with his suitcase of memories. A company dedicated to producing and promoting work by learning disabled performers, there’s a sly and suggestive anti-austerity angle packed in there with the fun and the whimsy. There’s an impressive control of pathos here too, in a work that touches serious subjects without ever dropping its smile.
A year ago the Scratch Night crammed itself into a function room above the Voodoo Café (dispenser of fine enchilada’s and craft beer), this year it has ballooned to fill the Liddiard Theatre in Pollam High School, with a packed audience watching and scribbling feedback for four work in progress pieces from the North East. Most polished and accomplished are Fun in the Oven, an all-female dance and physical theatre group who present a section of their latest project Munitionettes titled ‘The Canary Girls’. Taking its inspiration from the work of women in wartime factories, where the Trinitrotoluene they packed into shell casings would stain their skin yellow and expose them to horrific physical ailments. A musical grotesque, they clearly take inspiration from groups such as 1927, Kill the Beast and Les Enfants Terribles, but in their mixing of gruesome comedy, movement and a real political and social message, their work is very promising. There’s still development required to link the (often very funny) physical skits with the wider narrative, but that’s what scratch is for, eh?
Smaller but neater is Bolivian dancer Yuvel Soria’s short piece ‘Retratos’, which suggests a figure trapped in an urban environment, driven by an obsession with an elusive and complex thing that flees any attempt to grasp or unpick it. Soria blends traditional Bolivian dance with something far more local and contemporary, and whether he chases an addiction, a lost love, or an escape is never clear, but Soria’s performance is eloquent and intriguing. Neither a short episodic reflection on mother/daughter relationships by Celeste Hay nor a humorous but thematically obscure short play set in a mysterious blend of a brothel and Dignitas are as effective or complete, but that’s the joy of these evenings, and it feels like a form that Darlington’s audience are becoming increasingly comfortable and enthusiastic to embrace.
Beats North makes a stop off on its tour of the North-East to spread out across the Quaker Meeting Hall. A pair of monologues by Luke Barnes and Ishy Dinn, they take in two disaffected Tyneside adolescents, who find the identities their difficult upbringings threaten in the music that they love. Wright’s piece, performed by Tom Booth, tells the story of Jack, whose attachment to rag-doll Jade and the music of Bonnie Tyler puts him at odds with his macho father and his peers; while Dinn’s introduces us to Ali (Afnan Prince), whose relationship with posh-girl Bernie and the sparks set off by her father’s record collection creates tensions with his strict Pakistani father. Performed on a stage shaped like a 7”, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Barnes’ is the lead single, with Dinn’s shorter and less complete piece the inessential B-side, but taken together they’re punchy and satisfying, if the presence of Mariam Rezaei’s DJ cum master of ceremonies never quite gels or boosts the energy in the way you feel it should.
It feels particularly at home in a festival which Caroline describes as ‘transitional’, both in its outlook and the audiences it’s looking to hook in. ‘A lot of the people who are coming to see these shows are people who are at a phase in their life in which things are changing for them: they’ve just got married, or just left university or retired. And they’re looking for something new. They’re not just looking for the same old routine.’ These are the windows of opportunity, the cracks in the busy schedules of individuals who might not generally consider a theatre trip, which Caroline hopes to fill with the work at Jabberwocky.
This season’s spine shows, selected by the Jabberwocky producers from a menu of recent acclaimed productions, include Danny Braverman’s warm and elegiac Wot? No Fish!! and Chris Brett Bailey’s pupil-black This Is How We Die, both playing to packed houses, the vast majority of who had never encountered these works before. Both recent darlings of the alternative theatre scene, their presence in Darlington, where Braverman reduces a school hall into gentle sobs and Brett Bailey tears through a local night-club, fulfils one of the Collaborative Touring Network’s core objectives: improving access to some of the UK’s most talked-about and vital work. After TIHWD Maddy Costa led twenty or so local residents in a Theatre Club discussion, rebadged for Darlington as the Jabbering Theatre Club, and as in Margate earlier this year, the piece found more or less blanket approval. As well as the usual comparisons to William Burroughs and the Beat poetry of the 1960’s, the discussion covered questions of nihilism versus celebration in the text, its ‘orgasmic’ structure, the identity or position of the narrator, and his complicity or otherwise in his monologue’s frequent attacks on categories, boundaries and the politically correct.
The Jabbering also opened up a few questions which have been stirring around Brett Bailey’s piece all year – namely the weight of expectation created by the show’s unprecedented cult hype, one that’s only increased by its reputation as a ‘shocking’ piece. On entry to the club, the audience were handed earplugs because it ‘gets loud at the end’, others had been told to expect something wild or wildly offensive. There was even an air of disappointment that the expected wave of revulsion and horror hadn’t arrived. It’s not the way that people usually talk about theatre at all. If it has an analogue, it’s something like the way that illicit films are passed between school-friends, or shared on the internet. It’s a VHS of The Evil Dead in 1989. It’s ‘Two Girls One Cup’ 20 years later. When it’s all over, people say things like ‘It wasn’t that bad’, ‘it was gentler than I thought’, ‘It could have gone further’. It’s the Nemesis at Alton Towers. It’s the Pepsi Max and a bungee jump and a scotch bonnet and a video nasty. While it continues to unfold as a text, it’s also still unfolding as a sensation. It isn’t touring in a normal way, to Darlington or anywhere else, it’s touring as part of the story of itself, which everyone who has written about it and Tweeted about it is complicit with. A story in which, even in an ex-railway town hundreds of miles from London, Megan Vaughan is probably the main character. How cool is that??
Eating fried fish balls in a school hall. Dancing at 3pm in a Quaker Meeting House. Chatting the erotics of death under a deserted nightclub at 9pm on a Saturday. The Collaborative Touring Network feels quite open to criticism at times. It’s at least as full of the sort of stuff that London has decided is cool as the stuff that burbles from the grass-roots, and it probably costs a heap of money. But I defy you to go up to Darlington, and talk to the people there who are so excited and invigorated to be there, and to see this work blossom on their doorstep. To talk so excitedly and enthusiastically about what they’ve seen and what they’re going to see, and not just think that this is just absolutely, utterly brilliant. They’ve got Backstage in Biscuitland is coming up for the next festival in March, and they’re not just super stoked about that (and believe me they’re super stoked), but Caroline has already started putting access at the heart of her festival’s agenda. Signed shows are planned. Large print programmes are already available. She’s moving faster, and more nimbly and affirmatively than a good half of the art scenes in bigger and more populous towns and cities with bigger and more funded and more visible arts scenes.
It’s bloody cool, guys.