When Darlington Arts Centre was under threat in 2010, Lyn Gardner issued a dire warning, cautioning that ‘It will not only starve its population, and in particular its children, of access to the arts, but will also have an adverse economic and social effect on the town.’ Her article was accompanied by a Lorne Campbell snap of a bloke dressed in sportswear with dog on each arm, framed with a scraggy bit of grass and the muddy orange destination screen of a squat Arriva bus.
The centre closed anyway, gouged out of the town in July 2012 to a storm of local protest. It had served the community for 30 years, hosting Theatre Hullaballoo and the National Association of Youth Theatres, both organisations working with the engagement of some of the town’s youngest residents. It’s two years later, and while the gap left by the slashing of Darlington’s cultural resources is still keenly felt in a town left with only one theatre (and that one of the kind that plays host to Vampires Rock! and the latest Chuckle Brothers mash-up), the Jabberwocky Market has opened for business, and its impact has already been quite astonishing.
Part of the Collaborative Touring Network headed up by the Battersea Arts Centre, this October’s Jabberwocky Market was the third of six planned events which see the BAC roll some of the world’s most thought-provoking international theatre into town, while also hosting and supporting new work from the local area. There are similar festivals playing out in Hull, Great Yarmouth, Thanet, Gloucester and Torbay – similar, but not the same. Each location defines and brands its own festival, creating a unique identity that’s reflective rather than prescriptive.
Among the local artists and audiences who fought to save the centre was Caroline Pearce, freelance producer and founder of Luxi Ltd., a multi-disciplinary and cross-platform production company based in Darlington. Now she’s the producer of Jabberwocky Market, a blur of energt and enthusiasm for the north-east’s ailing arts scene. Or perhaps not so ailing. Caroline points to another Guardian article, one published in May this year as a particular catalyst for one piece of work under development at the festival. The article offers a list of Darlington’s ailments – it’s depleted influence in Westminster, its empty streets, images of graffiti and faded optimism and dashed hope. There’s some truths within its blunt prognosis, but also a sense of self-fulfilling defeatist prophecy, and it’s this kind of doom and gloom thinking that a project like Jabberwocky Market is empowered to counter.
The play which Caroline has commissioned is titled Empire of the Rats, and its being written by playwright and novelist Van Badham. It imagines a boy who dreams of rats, which teem from his imagination to explore and overrun and unseen world. It travels from the north-east to the far east, and its rich in images of the town and night, urban decay and a changing landscape. We hear it in the upstairs room of the Voodoo Café, a delightful base for Jabberwocky Markets operations. It’s part of a scratch night, presented alongside a witty political sketch on the bureaucracy of compliance regulations by Sedgefield group Lost the Plot, and a wonderfully eccentric (and early) interactive telling of a Christmas Carol, by brilliant local performer Chris Footwood. It’s a first chance to see the wide-ranging local audience which the festival attracts, one that is truly cross-generational and, you suspect, composed of many who would not consider themselves ‘theatre regulars’. The entire idea of a scratch evening is one that feels remote from the activities of Darlington’s Civic Theatre, but its lapped up and spills out into heated post-show discussions in the bar downstairs.
Back in the Voodoo Café on the Saturday of the festival, while Darlington’s contribution to the Fun Palaces project is battered by the rain outside, Gary Kitching’s excellent play Dead to Me is performed to a similarly packed house. Kitching is a familiar face at Northern Stage, and his story of one man’s obsession with a spirit medium, growing from an initial nervous scepticism through acceptance and to a sort of mania is perfectly pitched. Kitching’s show is touring following a successful run at the Fringe, and the Market provides it with the kind of platform within the town that the loss of venues such as the Arts Centre removes.
The Market also plays host to smaller and more formally inventive performances – including the five minute fantasy The Incredible Book Eating Boy, played out for family audiences in Darlington’s Central Library, and the similarly short but sweet Folk in a Box, in which one audience member at a time is invited to step inside a sort of wooden folk-TARDIS, where a single musician performs and sings a single song. It’s both incredibly soothing and oddly sad – a moment for contemplation that feels so much more personal and moving than simply listening through headphones in the dark. It has an intimacy and an immediacy that takes you far away from the rainy streets, a tiny pocket of calm and melancholy here materialised inches from Darlington’s covered market.
If there can be said to be a ‘main attraction’ or a headliner to this incarnation of Jabberwocky, it’s surely Theatre Ad Infinitum’s wildly successful Ballad of the Burning Star, and it’s a fantastically bold choice on the part of the BAC and its local partners. Played out in the Liddiard Theatre of a decidedly posh local independent school, the brash and harrowing drag-show dissection of the Israel/Palestine conflict is followed by a fascinating post-show discussion from Maddy Costa. Again, it’s the sort of work which requires an investment in the arts to take it to a town as distant from the UK’s theatrical meccas as Darlington, and as the audience’s breadth as well as the depth of their engagement demonstrated, it has a real power and value here.
It’s a constantly evolving project, as Caroline explains the size and shape of the Market has altered to fit the town across subsequent events. It’s still finding its ideal form and proportions, as well as beginning to experiment with its ability to commission or facilitate new work in the area. It’s objectives aren’t absolutely clear or concrete, and that may be what gives it its greatest strengths. It may be a market, but it’s pleasingly free from market pressures and objectives. The hope is that once the Battersea Arts Centre’s six visits to the town are over, the Market can continue in some form or other, and provide a long-term locus for artistic activity in the town.
There are exciting plans afoot for the future, and Caroline admits that the project has done ‘terrifying things’ for her own organisation Luxi, providing it with opportunities for producing its own work and supporting others which are so rarely available in the north-east. Jabberwocky Market and the BAC’s support has enabled Caroline to ‘side-step’ the usual model and the few heavily over-subscribed routes to getting work on and getting work noticed in the area. As strong as the work that Theatre Live and Northern Stage produce is, there are only so many opportunities they can offer, and Jabberwocky Market is a widening of that field of possibilities.
Its audience is building, its range of works is expanding and reaching out beyond the streets of Darlington to fire new collaborations and exchanges. It’s an inspiring project, marrying the best of the subsidised sector with true grassroots innovation and work. In other words, it’s quite a frabjous thing. Callooh callay, indeed.
Natasha Tripney on Gloucester’s Strike a Light Festival.