The trailer for Sh!t Theatre’s new performance, Letters to Windsor House, takes us literally right into their home. Up the concrete stairs of the incongruously named tower-block, along the Le Corbusier-inspired “walkway in the sky” familiar from shock docs, Attack The Block and Tony Blair sink estate speeches – through the front door.
Three performances at Whose London Is It Anyway? at Camden People’s Theatre this month are looking at different stories about where and how we live. Rachael Clerke’s Cuncrete is a dragged-up punk gig, led by a sleazy middle-aged architect who’s a living critique of hyper-masculinity and its effects on the built environment. Theatre-maker, Londoner and single mother Annie Siddon’s performance How (Not) To Live In Suburbia is about her personal struggle to fit in, after she found herself living in suburbia by accident. Sh!t Theatre’s Letters to Windsor House is a piece of detective work – and a look at how the housing crisis has affected the two performers’ friendship. The personal is the political, as the 1970s Women’s Lib slogan goes. And that’s never more true when you look at the home. Where you choose to live (or just as often where you end up living) places you in a socio-economic grouping. It defines which politicians you are able to elect (if you can vote). It dictates how you spend your money, where you work, what sights you see and how others see you. But it’s also a womb, a cocoon, a physical expression of your personality – whether it’s an orderly white box, a chaotic spilling-out of mugs, clothes, books and half-finished projects (me), or a Sunday Times supplement photoshoot made real.
Rachael Clerke’s point of departure plays with this contrast. Her point of departure was “In 2012, on the Southbank: the realisation that concrete buildings in the UK (which I have always liked, although not always known why I like) are simultaneously very very hard and cold – physically, and also arguably soft and nurturing – in that they were built with a sense of post-war idealism, and are about creating places of culture, education, residence for everyone in society. I became pretty interested in thinking of these as masculine and feminine archetypes, and also realised that this kind of housing policy is almost completely extinct now.”
We’re in a post-social housing policy wasteland, and optimism is in short supply. The overcrowded rental market is the kind of parent worthy of Mommie Dearest, inhospitable and brutal. Horror stories are traded like football cards, and met with the same kind of mesmerised horror you get as the camera pans slowly through Withnail’s kitchen, overflowing with sink mould and lavish decay.
“Louise’s old flat in Holloway had maggots falling from the ceiling. Literally, falling through holes in the ceiling, into the kitchen and into the bathroom, from a rotting rat/squirrel above.”
“When I was at college our landlord wouldn’t fix the leak from our shower, so if more than two people showered on the same day you could also have a little ‘second hand shower’ in the living room, under the mouldy patch on the ceiling. The advice we were given was ‘shower less’.”
“my anecdotes are more comically surreal. I live in suburbia, after all. I did get an anonymous letter from a neighbour exhorting me to TRIM MY BUSH. And then that was followed up by a letter from the council saying that the diameter of the branches of the bush was such that it could cause discomfort to passersby if it was raining and raindrops fell on their head. I wish I had kept the letter. It arrived during a mega stressful and sad period in my life and it was just brilliantly absurd.”
But every funny story points at something massive. Withnail’s mouldy kitchen is a symptom of a spiritual malaise, the something rotten in the state of Denmark, aired out in his final gorgeous Hamlet soliloquy. And by interacting with your streets, your area, you can see the political and social changes simmering underneath every corner shop and well-trimmed hedge.
“My experience walking round where I live is that there are no gays, there are no black people, there are no trans people, there are no working class people, there are no freaks and outsiders, there are no artists. And that’s kind of true if you read the census. How can that be London? The housing market made that happen, and the middle class obsession with schools.”
“The Costcutter opposite us recently changed its name to ‘Simply Organique’ without changing any of their actual stock. It feels like our area is gentrifying at a pace that nobody who lives here is ready for. It’s still a bit of a lovely shithole but that Simply Organique name-change probably added £20 a week to everybody’s rent.”
“My area (Easton in Bristol) is changing, and people have been priced out over the last three years since I moved there. I hate that, and I worry that I am part of the problem: I’m a white artist in a very multicultural, working class area. However, I’m living in the only part of the city that I can afford to be in, and I will almost definitely be priced out in the not too distant future.”
“So I live in suburbia, which couldn’t be more gentrified to start with, and my longterm aim is to move back into the city, but what I’ve been wondering lately is where is my London now, because many of the places I used to live before I lived here have changed beyond all recognition, and now there are all these made up places, made up developments with weird names like Silt Island, or Curlew Peninsula, which are just totally made up bits of mud that they’re building 800 storey buildings on and which Crossrail will serve.
When I was writing the show I went for a walk from the Thames Barrier to the Southbank on the southside of the river and I saw for the first time the epidemic of luxury flats. And I felt like I was in some weird dystopian RPG, there were all these empty flats, empty gyms, empty coffee shops, weirdly empty squares with empty playgrounds. I knew this existed already, but what freaked me was the scale of it, and the experience of the emptiness, whilst knowing the scale of the shortage of affordable housing.”
The performers of Cuncrete. Photo: Paul Samuel White.
So how do you talk about change? How do you get angry? Making political work is fraught, and artists and critics can end up circling round the word agit-prop like flocks of birds round an electric fence, unable to settle on it or ignore it.
Sh!t Theatre are especially cautious: understandably, since they’ve got some epically bad (ly written) reviews in their time, which they cheerfully re-appropriate as material for their performances. As they put it, “We are quite often called agit-prop but have never referred to ourselves as such. Nobody has ever referred to themselves as agit-prop, they are told they are agit-prop. And when someone calls you names you tend to assume it’s insulting. We’re not insulted. We refer to people who call us ‘agit-prop’ as ‘agit-prop journalists’. They differ from political theatre journalists but would never call themselves agit-prop journalists.”
Rachael Clerke’s got a similarly punk approach: she explains that “Basically I’ve just always wanted to be the lead singer in a punk band, and this seemed like a good opportunity to form one.” She snarls her way through her performance, a grotesquely sleazy older man. She explains that “I definitely make political theatre, though I’d call it more satire than agitprop. Most of my work is about politics. I think that’s a different thing from being ‘political’, though it is also that, too. I suppose my focus is more on exposing, and often ridiculing, the systems that are at play within our society, rather than being outwardly didactic.”
It’s a distance away from what Sh!t Theatre and Rachael Clerke are up, to maybe, but Annie Siddons clarifies that “I love raaah fuck the system shows btw.”
So how do you find a balance between “raaah fuck the system” anger and “slow drip” contemplative work, destabilising political structures from underneath? Rachael Clerke’s work is an unlikely combination of punk and serious research. I asked for a nugget of info she’d come across:
“The Soviets started mass building in concrete because it was cheap and didn’t require skilled workers. In the UK we adopted it for far more ideological reasons. We had no skill shortage, and it wasn’t really cheaper than building in stone, but after WWII a lot of UK governmental policy was based on the idea that everything would ‘always get better’. So building in concrete was seen as futuristic, and a sign of progress. So much so that there are parts of Thamesmead that are actually made of stone, but clad in concrete.
This is a very geeky nugget.”
Housing estates are living memorials to a society with different values – to a world where socialism wasn’t a dirty word, and progress was made by a whole society, not by a politically or technologically powerful few. Sh!t Theatre live in Windsor House, a council estate whose flats are parcelled out to be run by dodgy landlords with about as much communal spirit as the royal family it’s named after. Working on their performance, they found themselves literally living in their own personal research project: opening letters delivered to their illegally sub-let flat to go deeper into the many-layered chaos of the London rental market. But they’ve ended up investigating their own friendship, too – the imposed intimacy of living together in shared accommodation, and what that does. A home isn’t just a physical place – it’s a mental place, a place where political ideas and social aspirations coalesce, settle, and grow mould. A place to have serious fun. As Annie Siddons put it, her work is “my first autobiographical show. It’s about London, suburbia as a real and psychological place, and loneliness, amongst other things. I made it because I needed to, and because it suddenly became possible to. That sounds really earnest. The show isn’t.”
Annie Siddon’s performance How (Not) To Live In Suburbia is on from 21-22 January. Sh!t Theatre’s Letters to Windsor House is on the 28-29 Jan. Rachael Clerke’s Cuncrete is on the 30-31 Jan. For full details of the Whose London Is It Anyway? programme, visit the Camden People’s Theatre website.