In a harshly lit room in the back of The Park Theatre, a packed house shuffles in to sit and listen to stories about what it means to be British. Not just ‘British’, actually. This evening’s performance of Come to Where I’m From invites five writers to examine how this specific pocket of North London helped to shape their lives, their futures and their identities. Commissioned pre-Referendum, these plays represent the latest leg of a Paines Plough behemoth over six years in the making, now coming to London for the first time. According to the Paines Plough website, Come to Where I’m From is “a theatrical tapestry of the UK, woven by writers asking if home is really where the heart is.” If ever there was a time to ask that question, surely it’s now.
Each of the five writers are sat, plain-clothed, audience facing, presumably shitting their pants. Part of the deal of Come to Where I’m From is that writers are expected to perform their own pieces, and the atmosphere is pleasantly anxious. As a playwright, the idea of performing my own dramatic work sends me into a cold sweat: characters are handy vessels into which we may pour our deepest insecurities, emotions and values. Forcing the words back into the mouths of playwrights conjures an intimacy between us that burns as bright and as potent as striking a match. The nightmarish post-Brexit migraine we’re all still dizzy from throws this into even sharper relief: All of a sudden, we find ourselves in a climate where coming together to discuss national identity is a defiant political act, and we are all connected by its unmistakable frisson.
The plays are read with all the spluttering and pomposity of an evening at The Moth. Hands shake, words are fluffed, favourite lines languished over, jokes cracked, tears held back. At one point Cheryl Walker even bravely passes her adolescent notebook around the audience and our hands scrabble at it, pouring over it, a talisman of the kind of gutsy honesty that is the spirit of a night like this. In contrast, the words spoken are sharp and deliberate as five discordant voices all circle around that same, increasingly elusive notion of identity. The tapestry Come to Where I’m From attempts to weave is one of fractured selves: Stephen Jeffreys’ opening monologue is steeped in the nostalgia of a quainter London, while Isley Lynn’s guilt-ridden millennial fumigates symbolic ‘infestations’ and longs for the day there’s a Starbucks within walking distance of her house. Mahad Ali and Cheryl Walker both recount the familiar struggle people of colour face: “Where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from?” It seems the more we try to define what place means to identity, the more inseparable the two ideas become.
With its candid performances, the bright lights, rustling chairs and muted politicism of a town hall meeting, its timeliness and the beauty of the words themselves, Come to Where I’m From feels like a vital cog in a slowly developing conversation. The fact that the plays were written before the EU referendum, unedited in the wake of the crisis, offers them a retrospective poignancy. There is a sense that a discomfort with national identity, once bubbling, now overflows. That all the pieces performed are available on a convenient iTunes App widens the spectrum of audiences able to engage in the conversation. Come to Where I’m From is everything Rosemary Waugh spoke about in her piece on the Arts in a time of crisis. Sure, the unenlightened may be swallowed up in the digital glow of the twenty-four-hour news cycle at a time like this, but the success of Paines Plough’s mission is a testament to the fact that while the nation as we know it is crumbling, people still gather in overheated rooms to tell stories, to listen, and to understand.
Come To Where I’m From was on at the Park Theatre. For more information, click here.