Features Published 22 May 2015

Looping the Loop Festival

Stewart Pringle and Alice Saville went to Thanet (that's the 7000 year old island, district of Kent, and borough that houses Margate and Ramsgate) for Looping the Loop, a theatre festival seeded by Battersea Arts Centre. Here, they talk Turner, mermaids, abandoned themeparks, regeneration and performance on a sunny seaside weekend.
Alice Saville

Stewart Pringle:  Margate begins right away. Right out of the station. No messing about. Where other beaches and other seas hide coyly away behind rows of houses and increasingly sandy pavements, the moment you step from the station platform Margate’s promenade stretches out before you. The Turner Contemporary, like three metal smoking huts, sits by the harbour wall, while elsewhere arcades flash and whirr to nobody and the soft-sanded beaches lounge, picturesque but abandoned. It’s not a busy sea-front. Few lollies are licked. Few pennies are shoved. Cranes hang unwanted over plush prizes they had no intention of picking up anyway.

Until recently Dreamland was the apotheosis of all of this. A pleasure garden that served as the focal point for Margate’s joy industry from its creation in 1880 through to its slow and painful decline at the end of the next century, Dreamland finally closed its doors a decade ago, and its fate seemingly sealed when part of the rollercoaster-like Scenic Railway was arsoned in 2008. Now Dreamland is lurching back onto its feet, following an extensive campaign, and if all goes according to plan, it will re-open next month and launch the neglected town into a new period of regeneration.

The opening of Turner Contemporary (named for the painter who escaped to the seaside be with his love Mrs Booth, proprietress of a Margate boarding house) has already attracted or bolstered the sprinkling of chic coffee shops and vintage stores that pepper the Old Town, signalling Margate as another of the Kentish coast’s cultural retreats. But however excited London day-trippers may be about the upcoming Grayson Perry exhibition, if Margate is going to regain its former glory, it needs to attract the kind of visitors who stay for more than just a bank holiday. Who bring the kids and buy cod and chips from the cafes.

There’s a cautious optimism about Dreamland from many of Margate’s older residents who we meet, but also occasional darker notes. Whispers of mob bosses and murders, of scams and schemes and vested interests. Whatever part Dreamland plays in the town’s immediate future, its legacy is unlikely to be straightforward. And visiting Margate, only a few miles away from the boundary of Thanet South, and Ramsgate, which is right in its beating heart, on the weekend before the 2015 General Election, that sense of hope tinged with foreboding feels like the pervading atmosphere.

Now, almost two weeks later, when Farage has been slain and, like Dreamland, performed his own Lazarus act, we’re looking back at a weekend spent at the Looping the Loop festival, part of the Battersea Arts Centre’s Collaborative Touring Network. As we’ve spoken about in previous articles, BAC’s programme is about more than taking the cream of UK theatre out into some wild, uncultured ‘regions’ – it’s about blending this work with the work already being produced and curated in towns outside of the London arts bubble. It’s about facilitating self-defined and (hopefully, eventually) self-sustaining festivals of performance in towns which have seen culture fall low on the investment agenda, and are suffering because of it. With the once fabulous Winter Gardens playing host to little other than nostalgic variety nights, right wing comedians and UKIP party conferences, it has fallen to smaller, grassroots creative enterprises to fill the gaps.

During our weekend in Thanet we met a few of the people who run these operations. Jessica Jordan-Wrench and Eoin Furbank who head up the tiny, ramshackle, perfect Tomb Thumb Theatre; Suzy Humphries who produces the Looping festival on behalf of Thanet, and many of the artists visiting and artists resident, sharing their work with a new audience and with each other.

Stewart Pringle: There’s a cymbal tree in Turner Contemporary, sprouting Paiste high hats and gongs instead of fruit. Once every hour, on the hour, you can take a beater and play it, and the whole gallery is filled with clanging and fizzing. It’s called ‘We Will See How Everything Reverberates’, and it’s the creation of Mexican artist  Carlos Amorales.

Nobody’s playing it at the moment. At the moment I’m sitting next to it and watching a man’s naked buttocks as he drags a trunk across the gallery floor. He unpacks it and picks out costumes and tries them on like some semi-nude Mr Ben (and even Mr Ben was probably semi-nude from time to time). This is Scratch Your Self, an hour of new work that’s taken over the gallery and plays out simultaneously, each act looping through its own loop. The semi-nude man’s name is Pablo Pukula and he’s exploring masculinity and the projection of maleness through typically gendered roles. And while he does it another artist, Niamh Lynam-Cotter, performs a new piece of work, whispering nervously, as if she’s asking tentative questions of her audience, just below audibility. You can’t really hear her because of the intermittent bursts of noise punk emanating from the lift, where local band Ray Gun are performing ‘Lift Music’, muzak by way of Napalm Death’s SCUM, played up close and personal in the thirty seconds it takes to ferry a small crowd from the Sunley Gallery to the balcony.

In the lobby there’s a man dancing to himself, holding out a pair of headphones. This must be Simon Merrifield. This must be My Fidelity. I take them and look into his eyes and listen to a song I don’t recognise. I don’t dance, but Simon does. Outside I help Louise Mari (of Shunt, but I don’t actually recognise her or realise this until the next day because I’m shit with names, worse with faces) gaffer tape some dolls to the seafront. Later I meet Louise and she’s dressed as a rabbit, and she hands me a megaphone and asks for my first impressions of Margate. I tell her about a man who pissed himself outside the Harbour Arms while I was having a pint sitting next to him. Nobody minded at all, and that seemed like a really good sign about the accepting nature of people in Margate.

Inside the audience keeps flowing through the gallery. Pukula has set up a sign reading ‘FOREIGNER’ and is trying on a variety of outlandish hats. His choice of role here can’t help but bring to mind the shadow of UKIP, not for the last time at Looping the Loop, preparing to count their beans and their chances just down the beach in Thanet South. Down one corridor Bob Henderson performs ‘A Very Thin Line’ in a cleaners’ cupboard, gyrating in wig and lingerie as we snap pictures on camera-phones.

The second half of the hour is a little more organised, and if it lacks some of the charming, exciting chaos of the earlier grab-bag, mix-tape approach, it allows the audience a little more time to focus and reflect. Daisy Orton addresses the theatrical history of Margate through the poignant juxtaposition of names culled from programmes for long-forgotten shows, the pouring of soil onto a cardboard theatre, and the video of a real theatre undergoing demolition. If Rebekah Sunshine’s S&M flavoured experiment – where a masked gimp is subjected to some mild physical torment by willing audience members – doesn’t quite hit its mark, the debut performance of ‘Breaking Free’ by a young teenage boy certainly does. In the white walls of the gallery he performs a muscular, sensitive routine – a beautiful moment in a beautiful building, backed by the distant waves.

Room with a view.

Room with a view.

Alice Saville: The Turner gallery is a gorgeous slab of modernism that hides need on its blank faces – it needs you play a role in justifying its vast expense, by bringing prosperity to a town that might have other, less showy desires. On a sunny bank holiday weekend in May, out-of-towners wandering the deserted streets feel needed too, to fill in bit-parts anticipated but dwindling by the town’s public-facing population. Men manned bouncy castles and mini golf courses on the deserted beach with the embattled desolation of flyerers on the last Monday of the Edinburgh Fringe, scowling as people marched purposefully past.

It felt deserted – later, festival organiser Suzy told us that people will often go up to London for the weekend. As tourists who’d come the other way, we were hot property. In the quietly gorgeous Tudor House we were asked if we wanted the guided tour – we said no but got one anyway. Our guide had been made redundant by a computer company – “my face didn’t fit” – and filled his time volunteering. It was nearly half a century since his first visit, where he’d been traumatised by the sight of an eight-legged lamb stuffed as the centrepiece to a banquet. Where 1950s crowds must have flooded the cottage when rained off the beach, a trickle of sightseers were expertly shown round by volunteers in an atmosphere of polyphonic solemnity.

There’s a tinge of eccentricity along with the quietness. At the cottage, dusty dollies represented Henry VIII and his wives, and a banquet included a charmingly lopsided papier mache swan. At the Mad Hatter’s Cafe, we were reluctant extras in the appropriately eccentric proprietor’s show. But when we encouraged a lone woman taking up valuable table real estate to join us, our unbirthday party seat swapping caused consternation. And then, in Ramsgate’s Corby Cafe, my request for a cheese scone instead of toast with my leek and potato soup caused a degree of consternation more usually reserved for topless men or people who drink their tea from the saucer. “Very unusual. Made us all think.” said the waitress as she brought the offending combination over. More comment was passed by the two other staff members. At the next table, the reigning Miss Margate (we recognised her from a poster) entertained her entourage.

Shell grotto

Shell grotto

Alice Saville: The Shell Grotto is buried in the heart of Margate– and one that’s oddly symbolic of all the town’s eccentricities. It’s small chapel-like series of rooms are decorated with over four million shells. No one really knows, or wants to know, whether it’s a particularly eccentric 18th century folly, an ancient Knights Templar meeting place, an off-shoot of the Hellfire Club or (my pet theory) a Victorian hoax by the opportunistic owners of the girls’ school above it. Its atmosphere is saturated in the sights and creeping damp of the sea, and together with the speculative exhibits of the on-site museum, it embodies all of Margate’s magic, tweeness, and dashes of sideshow cynicism.

Stewart Pringle: One of this festival’s ‘spine shows’, nationally acclaimed works which Battersea Arts Centre brings to its various CTN destinations, is Lorraine and Alan, and it feels an appropriately watery, mystical choice.

Lorraine and Alan is essentially Splash for the Juno-generation. Gawky fish-geek Alan befriends and romances a young selkie he meets on the beach, a mermaid who sheds her seal-like skin in order to live with him on land. There are shades of Let the Right One In, but this is a gentler and more specific love-story. Its humour is drenched in a kind of 90’s nostalgia, its briny mystical elements helping to enlarge and enrich the story of an unconventional couple who grow together and then grow apart. They find each other and lose each other on a stage as full with plastic water bottles as a sea turtle’s stomach.

Stewart Pringle: It’s only natural that a festival in a one-time Mecca of family entertainment should contain a few offerings for the smaller ones, and the shows at Looping feel like an object lesson in the chasm which now exists between heart-felt and boundary pushing children’s entertainment and the kind of by-the-numbers bullshit that younger audiences have had to put up with for so long. In the red corner, standing up for all that is right and good in the world is The Adventure, an ‘interactive mystery’ which has taken over a red-brick Ramsgate grammar school.

A wonderfully dreary performance from a dilapidated clown (the awesome Nathaniel Tapley) is hijacked by a Scooby Doo-style gang of overgrown kids investigating their scientist father’s disappearance. The audience of children young and old are led through dim and smoky school corridors, set Crystal Maze-style challenges in a variety of puzzle rooms, and eventually come face to face with a frankly horrifying revelation. It’s high-impact, relatively high-risk and absolutely full-bodily engrossing children’s theatre. What it lacks in budget it makes up for in a canny use of darkness and simple set-dressing (think the better of mid-80’s Doctor Who) and respect for the intelligence and good sense of its young audience.

Which makes the sorry sack of a show in the blue corner look all the more exposed. Hugless Douglas, dispiritedly adapted from David Melling’s picture book by the worryingly prolific Blunderbuss Theatre, is an aching, desperate bore. Lacklustre songs, a knackered set, even more knackered and dead-eyed performers, it’s the kind of dross that potters around provincial theatres and puts children off the performing arts for life. It makes your average third-string commercial panto look like Catherine Bennett, and at a bear-hair over an hour it’s lucky its audience is too young and easily cowed to demand a refund.

This is How We Die?

This is How We Die?

Alice Saville: Hugless Douglas reminded me how dead-eyed and unloveable theatre can be. Chris Brett Bailey did something similar, but in the best way possible, targeting grown adults not hapless kids with a nihilistic, life-affirming contradictory narrative flow that filled and spilled out of the tiny, gorgeous Tom Thumb theatre. It’s an old Victorian coach house, lovingly converted by a dictatorial retired actress in the 1980s (who disapproved of lighter elements of the program) and then just as lovingly renovated by new owners into an unlikely receiving house for a cutting edge mix of theatre and music.

Chris Brett Bailey is already a firm Exeunt favourite (he’s even getting his own zine) so I plonked myself front and centre with the rapt enthusiasm of a willing novitiate. I’m not going to do a chapter and verse on This Is How We Die (you can read Stewart Pringle’s review of it here), but I can’t escape a little light praise singing…

Road trips normally leave me cold – maybe because in my one experience they’ve been called “long car journeys” and ended up on a chilly campsite in Wales or someone’s sofa in Edinburgh. But here the thrill of the open road is only a tiny part of the magic. Chris Brett Bailey’s words travel around in his mouth as he rolls and spits them out – locking each persons’ eyes in turn as he repeats “Jism. Jism. Jism.” – or taking on a surreal life of their own as a boy and a girl turn dinner with the ‘rents into house-demolishing chaos, or a petrol stop into a sadistic riff on one of Bataille’s nastier stories.

Part of his trick is to worm holes through every metaphor he lets slip, inhabiting them until they become real. Her Nazi Dad is formed in the literal shape of a swastika, his limbs reset after a car accident. Her taciturn Mum actually has her lips stapled shut. He plays with our expectations of how language works, and dares us to a game of performance-chicken which can only end with someone getting crushed by a car. Then, a post-rock blitzkrieg scatters out thoughts in an explosion of dust.

We were given the not insignificant task of reassembling them for Maddy Costa’s Theatre Club, upstairs in the Tom Thumb. And it was impressive how quickly everyone lined up their thoughts. Some found it nihilistic and depressing. Some life-affirming. Some had come loads of times, but it didn’t feel like they had any special place of privilege in a discussion where no one really knew what it was “about”. Kim felt that Chris had lived the same life as her, remembering her burnout motorcycle travels. Jess felt he’d read the same books as her. The names people bandied – Charles Bukowski, Hunter S Thompson – are ones I studiously avoided during my English degree. From what I’d read, they fantasised about a world of male bachelordom that had absolutely no place for a shy queer library dweller like me – a damp Americana dream drenched in whisky and petrol. I’d poke fun at the literary boys who sipped solo spirits in an invisible spotlight at the bar before anxiously sobering up in time for lectures.

Chris Brett Bailey may well have been one of them – but this is a mature work that lets a whole set of tropes grow up and roam free. He’s not perpetuating a redundant fantasy, he’s needling in to every brick of it then blowing apart what’s left with a molotov cocktail of blood, piss, petrol and jism. Part of me had wanted to stumble out into the chill air to let the dust settle, watching the tide come in. But in the dense warmth of the Tom Thumb’s bar we squeezed together into a multi-generational mass of glowing enthusiasm – something cosier but just as life-affirming as what came before.

Alice Saville: This is How We Die was an opportunity for one of the most talked-about bits of new performance to bed down in faded velvet in a seaside town. But some of the biggest pleasures of the CNT festivals are the unexpected discoveries.

Stewart Pringle: Thanet-based company Mischievous Theatre used Looping to present a moving, if diffuse, work in progress excerpt titled I Have Lost Myself. Clive Holland writes and performs, moving between a series of vignettes and sketches which piece together the fragmented recollections of an Alzheimer’s sufferer, as well as the history of the disease and its neurological impact. A mother’s disintegration emerges in painful suggestions and snatches of monologue. We see the sufferer as a stranger in a strange land, losing the ability to translate speech, arriving in the steam of a train and the fog of forgetfulness. Holland is a terrific performer too, with a gravelly pitifulness that almost but cannot quite obscure a twinkle. It’s over in a flash, but even at this early stage its empathy and strong presentation lights up the Theatre Royal.

Stewart Pringle: On our last night at Looping the Loop we meet Suzy in a bar just off from Ramsgate’s sail-cluttered harbour, and she tells us about the work that she and others have undertaken to improve the range and standard of the performing arts in Thanet. How at first ‘every person without fail told us we were never going to to it.’ She puts this down to the deprivation Thanet has experienced, the strings of broken promises and commitments from politicians and councils. ‘We needed to make a promise that wouldn’t be broken.’

Suzy and her friends set up ‘A Summer Squall’ back in 2009, a festival of performance and visual arts that returns this year as the Ramsgate Festival. Her work in making Looping the Loop a reality is in many ways an extension of that spirit, of improving the lives of the community by expanding and improving the range of arts available to them.

Later that night we watch Jessica, of Tom Thumb theatre fame, perform with Ray Gun at the final night of a pre-election awareness raiser for The Reality Party. A distinctly stoppable political force founded by perpetually-baffled Happy Mondays mascot Bez, it’s one of the more peculiar reactions that has formed in opposition to Farage’s co-opting of Thanet has his path to power.

Jessica’s a great front-woman for Ray Gun, and both she and Suzy seem like the perfect front-women for Looping the Loop too. Both are practical as well as passionate, hands on and mucking in types who don’t shrug off the challenge that faces them in reinvigorating their region’s cultural scenes.

Less than a week later South Thanet will do them both proud by showing the door to Farage, albeit by voting in a Tory, and in a month’s time Dreamland will finally open its doors. I want to go back and see how Thanet changes, if it does, and how the seeds that Looping the Loop and the Ramsgate Festival plant grow, and what strange fruit they bear.

Elections always feel like switch points, but it Thanet is resting at a larger and more crucial one anyway. It’s dreaming its own future, in rooms like the downstairs at the Tom Thumb and in the DIY space rocket Suzy and her team have built above a church hall to take local children on a homespun fifteen minutes of interstellar exploration. I’m painfully aware that we’ll be coming back as DFL’s, as Jessica terms us (Down From London), but it’s the kind of place that wants to draw you back to see how the dream pans out and whether it sticks.

Alice Saville: Whatever political rhetoricians have tried to cast it as, the Isle of Thanet isn’t a stagnant backwater. It’s got a distinctive, powerful tide of its own. This tide used to wash up waves of day-tripping tourists, and now it’s depositing a quirkier flotsam of artists and visitors who are drawn by a deeper lure than golden sands. Or, in Turner’s case, by a certain landlady with a twinkle in her eye.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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