The theatres are closed. What now? Commissioned and co-curated by Greyscale, Imaginary Reviews is a series that invites critics and artists of all stripes to write about a fictional performance at their local theatre. The series continues with Lyn Gardners’ community-led creative takeover of Kingston’s town centre.
Audio version by Hannah McPake:
Kingston’s Rose Theatre is in almost complete darkness, lit only by a single candle flickering on the empty stage. It symbolises the ghost light left on in all empty theatres across the land when they are closed. A group of small children, hand in hand, walk on stage. They kneel in front of the candle, take a deep breath and blow it out. For a second the theatre is encased in velvety darkness like a shroud. You cannot but think of other ghosts. Like the rest of the country, Kingston has had its losses.
Then something seemingly miraculous happens: a pure voice rises like a balloon with the unaccompanied opening notes of a haunting song composed by Spitlip, who gave us 2019’s gorgeous Operation Mincemeat. A choir joins in this peon to loneliness and togetherness. Light floods the theatre, pink and golden like a new dawn. The audience turn to each other, smile and join in the chorus.
It is indeed a new dawn for Kingston’s Rose theatre, which is under the leadership of Christopher Haydon, who had barely got his foot in the door before it was closed by the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020. The theatre may not have produced since, but it has been productive within the community, working with them and for them, and harnessing and developing the everyday creativity that has bloomed in the wake of the Coronavirus. On stage, Little Bulb are leading a community orchestra of all ages, many of whom had never picked up an instrument until a few months ago and who now play oboes, trumpets and spoons with undisguised glee.
Suddenly a flock of angels swoops from the ceiling. They’re aerialists; a cheeky nod towards Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony from directors Ben Duke (Lost Dog) and Jenny Sealey (Graeae). They’re wearing aviator goggles and nurses uniforms, a reference to Kingston’s history as one of the stalwarts of the aviation industry during WW2. But also, perhaps to the PPE, which was in such short supply for NHS workers during the crisis last year. The audience whoops and cheers.
The Rose—like so many theatres across the country—has become a creative community hub. It was aided by an injection of money into every theatre in the land from a government that belatedly recognised their importance; after all, the public would not have got through the lock-down without the online entertainment that so often has its roots in the skills and imagination fostered by theatre. The government also introduced a basic living wage for every adult after the spectre of millions of unemployed loomed. Now, the creativity of artists has sparked dozens of creative projects and small businesses.
Kingston has become famed for its time-banking and bartering economy – as well as for the banana bread that is made by a co-operative based in a unit in the former shopping mall, the Bentall Centre, and sent all over the world. But it is also famed for the explosion of creativity that has taken place across the town, and in which the Rose has played a significant role.
Like a group of miniature pied pipers, the children beckon the audience out into Kingston’s streets, as if the theatre is too confining for their energy and they need to burst out of its walls. We pass a peeling poster for a touring production of Steel Magnolias and it is as if it hails from another century, not just a year ago.
By the riverside, under the light of a pink supermoon and carbon-neutral lighting powered by rowing machines and members of the local rowing club, Forced Entertainment are performing in English and BSL their version of JK Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, a story whose opening scenes take place in Kingston. Tim Etchell’s text is both solemn and achingly funny. I’m confident it is destined to tour Europe and become one of the company’s most successful shows. Although the ducks, annoyed at having their sleep disturbed, are quacking indignantly.
In the ancient marketplace there is bellringing and knitting, and those who want to can peel off for an interactive theatrical treasure hunt created by Coney. A free digital online version created by local young programmers will be available in a few months’ time. There is also free hairdressing and storytelling.
On Kingston Bridge, which for centuries was the first crossing point on the Thames upstream from London, there is a ghostly procession of people wearing fruit gum studded crowns, referencing Kingston’s past as the place where so early kings were crowned. But this spectral procession also reminds of the many lost and the social inequalities of this leafy outer London borough, with its large middle class population masking pockets of deprivation.
In the Bentall Centre itself, once a cathedral to shopping, the many empty shopping units are given over to installations. Outside what was once Superdry, a crowd is peering through the windows at a group of people who have taken up residence in the shopfront and are living there in full view for nine weeks, the length of the original lockdown.
There is an unexpected but breath-taking collaboration between Selina Thompson and Katie Mitchell in what was once WH Smith, with a live feed being projected on the outside of the building. I won’t spoil it for you. In what was H&M, the secondary school pupils of the borough have created an installation in which teenagers in polar bear costumes prowl around a giant melting block of ice. It may not be a subtle critique of the way that the clothing industry is implicated in the climate emergency, but it is undeniably moving.
A bell rings, summoning us all back towards the theatre. People crowd into the foyers and into the theatre itself. The doors, which never allowed for a satisfactory flow of people, are wide open. Everyone is welcome. Banana bread and butternut squash soup are handed round and we eat together. On stage Judi Dench (such a memorable Titania at this address in an otherwise so-so A Midsummer Night’s Dream) speaks Sonya’s last great speech from Uncle Vanya. We will endure. In the charged silence before the clapping begins, a single feather spirals to the floor.
When the clapping subsides, the woman beside me, who has four generations of her family tow, turns to me and says, “when this theatre was built, we all thought it was a waste of money. We would have much preferred a skating rink. But tonight, it feels like home.” She’s right, at long last it does. The question facing all theatres after the lockdown is how they can be useful, how can they support everyone’s creativity, not just that of those lucky enough to call themselves artists. How can they be genuinely part of their communities? It is a question that the Rose is answering.