Features PerformanceQ&A and Interviews Published 29 October 2012

Uninvited Guests: The Good Neighbour

On site, community and social politics.

Diana Damian Martin

What is a neighbour? Is it someone who lives near or next to someone else or do the connotations go deeper, wider? The word implies proximity, community, closeness.  The concept of a neighbourhood contains notions of collectivity and, in BAC’s new project The Good Neighbour, this idea of nearness is interrogated in a production that explores memories, both personal and local.

The Good Neighbour project is composed of three different collaborations for three different age groups: Early Investigators (5 and under), Young Adventurers (6+) and Intrepid Explorers (13+).  Anchored within the history of the local area and BAC’s own grand Victorian town hall building, the piece features work from artists as diverse as Bryony Kimmings (Young Adventurers), Gary Campbell (Early Investigators) and Uninvited Guests (Intrepid Explorers); it re-enacts the story of George Neighbour, whose plaque adorns the exterior of the building. It’s an exercise in imagination for both artists and audiences alike, one that, in its formal architecture, allows for a sense of play to permeate not only the various layers of the building’s history, but also more recent events.

For Intrepid Explorers, Uninvited Guests have brought the journey out into the streets of Clapham and Battersea; audiences are taken on a two-hour historical tour of the area, in which comparisons are inadvertently made between the story of the 1909 fire at Clapham Junction and the 2011 riots. Walking is a key mode of enactment and interaction in the story, and ritual permeates the form of the piece. I spoke to the company about the ideas behind Intrepid Explorers.

Diana Damian: The Good Neighbour engages with many elements; it’s a show aimed at a wide variety of audiences, seeking to challenge and reconsider the form of the family show. It’s also a show that, in its three-strands, engages with locality, be it through the story of George Neighbour, the stories embedded in BAC’s building, or the people and histories of the local area. As the creatives behind Intrepid Explorers, how did you negotiate these elements? How did you expand outwards from BAC’s own building into a landscape both historical and contemporary?

Uninvited Guests: We were given the George Neighbour story as a starting point by BAC – there is a plaque at BAC that is hidden away that commemorates his heroism. He saved, or tried to save, a few colleagues from the fire at Arding and Hobbs in 1909 and he died in the process. The rest was down to us. So we were interested in the fact that Arding and Hobbs – now Debenhams – is just down the hill. It seemed obvious to us that we needed to take our audience down to the actual site of the catastrophe. We were interested in the charges , traces, ghosts left in a place by events – particularly events as dramatic as this one , in which twelve people were killed and thousands watched it happening.  I think that you can see this interest in the charge of a place/space and the ghosts that might inhabit that space in other UG shows including Love Letters Straight From the Heart and Make Better Please.

From the idea of wanting to take people down to the actual site of the fire and the site of all those deaths, came the idea of a guided tour – historical tours after all are usually based on taking you to the actual places where events happened and you getting excited as history comes to life in your imagination in that specific place.

Because of the heroic George Neighbour story, we started asking local people about their own experience of acts of heroism/kindness/neighbourliness and we got some good stories emerging. We were conscious of the riots last year from the start  and we always thought that those events, if we were looking to create a collage of stories about events happening up and down Lavender Hill, might figure in the tour. In the end, because of some interesting resonances between the events last year and the local political context for the 1909 fire, we decided to focus our tour on just two periods of time (the early 20thcentury and 2011), and around two fires – the fire at Arding and Hobbs and the fire at the Party Shop across the road last year.

We were interested in the connectedness of the Old Town Hall (now BAC) to both the broader political context around the fire in 1909 and with the local community down Lavender Hill during the riots last year – BAC got involved in the clean-up operation, amongst other things.

DD: The performance takes the form of a theatrical guided tour, in which history and contemporary life are merged. Furthermore, you’re looking at a local radical history. I’d love to know more about this radicality, how it is transmitted and opened up for the audience within the piece, and how you uncovered it as well. Were you seeking to find local narratives to embed within the piece, or inquire and re-enact what specific places were hiding, like a historical cartography?

UG: We started with 1909 and we were exploring what Battersea was like at that time – in the front line of the Industrial Revolution, and so that left-wing radical politics was part of the scene in Battersea at that time, and Battersea was a ‘frontier land’ in that respect. New ideas, new organisations were taking shape here in response to the brutal environments and brand new communities established by the IR. We were interested in the idea that a Victorian/Edwardian environment that we know so well was the site for conflict, radicalism and that it was leading the world in some respects – great forces were at work in these streets.

We were also interested in thinking about neighbourliness in a broader sense. What is our relationship/responsibility to our neighbours, our community, our city, our area? This of course leads you on to thinking about big political issues – issues perhaps that aren’t talked about in as a direct a way now as they were in the late 19th/early 20th century, when talk of revolution was in the air and extreme poverty was focusing people’s minds. Having said that we think there is the resonance of the Occupy movement and the 99%/1% thing in this piece.

DD: The performance engages with and reflects on the now iconic fire in Clapham Junction- and inherently, the London Riots. In what ways did you approach this, and why was it important to you for these to have a presence in the performance?

UG: Without wanting to create some sort of crass equivalence between the social conditions of the late 19th/ early 20th century and today’s ‘underclass’ we were interested in the exercise of comparing the two periods of time – the social conditions, the dialogue about wealth and political power. We were interested in the fact that John Burns, who is a key figure in our tour and was Battersea’s MP during this period of history, had, at an earlier point in time at a rally in Trafalgar Square, called for out of work people to riot and loot bread from the bakeries in the West End. We were interested in the politics/ethics of rioting and looting then and now. We were interested in the continuing gap between rich and poor in London – the rhetoric around this from John Burns in the 1900s feels depressingly relevant to today’s society with thee mega wealthy living alongside people who are poor and a bit hopeless.

DD: Given its form, the piece suggests a potential ritual of participation and engagement- what is the position of the audience within this, and do you engage which such processes within the work?

UG: Yes, it is a guided tour come political march come mystery play come pageant come pilgrimage, come funeral procession. The audience slips between a number of different roles in these contexts. Hopefully all of these different roles are helping them to get closer to ‘feeling the charge’ or ‘conjuring the ghosts’ of the events/atmospheres that we are describing.

DD: Community is also an important theme and aspect of the piece. In what ways do you seek to intervene and open this up within the work? And in what ways did the local collaborations shape and mold the piece?

UG: Hopefully the piece is about this particular community – what it is now, where it has come from, and what it might be capable of in the future. As well as demonstrating this through the stories told, our hope is that a sense of community is created amongst the people doing the tour, many of whom are local – there are chances to talk to those on the tour with you, share a drink, have a singsong together etc.

We have also managed to get lots of support from local organisations/businesses – access to the library, cafes, a solicitor’s, a department store etc – again we think this demonstrates something positive about a community coming together and being generous.

DD: And there’s a brass band. Can you tell us a bit more about the brass band?

UG: Right at the beginning of our development for this piece, we were keen to engender a sense of community amongst the audience without them feeling coerced into some sort of temporary cult. A simple way of allowing this to happen is to make music together, or at least for that notion to be in the air. We discussed teaching some rudimentary drumming, harmonies for a song etc, but all seemed a bit too close to a workshop, and both the requirement for specific participation and the possibility of failure could alienate audiences.

The idea of a community band or choir lingered however and when trying to find a way of supporting the text with sound, and so solution that sort of married both appeared. The audience are the brass band, eight of them carry instruments ranging from bass drums to euphoniums. These instruments have been modified into portable sound systems, and the performers transmit audio to them during the tour. They accompany the guided tours with music and location based sounds. The music is partly new material which I recorded with a group of session players, and partly constructed from recordings I [Lewis Gibson] made of London based community bands, including The South London Fellowship Band, the Fulham Brass Band and BAC’s own Beatbox Academy (these bands are still thriving, albeit in ever dwindling numbers). The location sounds help to conjure away the present, and amplify the past, be that Edwardian drawing rooms or more recent street riots.

The band gets us marching together, accompanies our songs, our funeral processions, our rallies and maybe acts as a rose tinted lens for the past. Sometimes the bands clash together as in Charles Ives’ Fourth of July or Country Band March. The brass band reminds us of working men and women, of previous political struggles, of marching for a collective cause. During the evening, the audience swap instruments, and this simple act of undoing harnesses and straps seems to help build a sense of community. In the end they become, at least to the throngs of public that they are amongst, a bona fide marching band playing brass music along the street. It is this scene, this casting of them into street musicians, that gives me the most pleasure to watch, and the audience seem to enjoy the charade too.

The Good Neighbour is on at Battersea Arts Centre until 4th November.

Many thanks to Richard Dufty and Lewis Gibson. 

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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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