Regeneration leads us on a search for tenderness in a world of harsh edges, trying to avoid stepping on lego bricks along the way. Architecture blueprints are stuck with clinical white tape on the wall of the new Wardrobe Theatre as Andy Kelly, Stevie Kelly and Emma Shearer-Hackett lead us through the past, present and imagined future. They piece together building bricks of information about the housing crisis, gentrification and what it really means to call a house a home.
‘either you a part of the problem
Or part of the solution
What’s your contribution to life’
-Jurassic 5, ‘Contribution’
The research behind Regeneration spills out of the play, historically, ethically and emotionally. Write By Numbers Theatre have worked on regeneration projects around England and their knowledge of the issues are evident in the writing. Stories are linked with facts, statistics and interviews, woven together through different timelines and crossing continents. The lack of music means the actors’ footsteps and the lifting of a chair create the transition from one idea to the next.
At times the play feels a little stilted by the repetition and the almost-too-clean direction. There is a lack of authenticity in the words because they feel so scripted. The cast don’t quite feel invested in the different cities they create, with the underlying messages educating us on the issues of gentrification seeming more important than the fictional stories they’re enacting. In between each section they turn to look at the map of the show on the wall, scrolling down the list to find their place. Though this creates a clear break to move to the next scene, somehow it’s hard to resist the temptation of echoing their scroll and seeing how far through we are. Knowing the exact blueprint takes away some of the excitement of the unknown.
There are moments of beauty. Stevie makes us miss our childhood homes as he takes our hand and guides us through his parent’s traumatic journey. Andy shows us round the world as he demonstrates ostracisation from different societies, as well as how easy it is to forget the love for a job, and the importance of finding something new and exciting. Emma’s story of an architect in 2017 shows us the fight between beauty and practicality, and asks whether gentrification is always a bad thing. The gentlest moment though, comes with Stevie’s description of his mum crying on his shoulder, his hair getting wet from her tears. In this minute detail all rigidity is washed away and it feels like he’s just a friend whispering a secret.
The play’s importance to this city is timely. Bristol is currently in a flux of gentrification. The council recently gave permission for over 7000 new houses to be built before 2020 but just 10% of these will be classed as ‘affordable’. Stokes Croft, Bristol’s artistic hub, is becoming ever more vocal about independence and the city’s personality, with the infamous example being the attempt to install a Tesco Metro that caused riots in 2011. Regenerations’ mentions of homelessness too, strike a chord here. Homelessness in Bristol feels different to homelessness in London. Because people stick to the same areas you begin to recognise them. Everyone knows Jack the Big Issue seller on Park Street. But recognising the homeless makes you feel all the more guilty when you just walk on past. When Emma tells us of the Tompkins Square Park Riots in New York in 1988, she evokes a feeling of upheaval, a desire to change their situation. But then they turn to look at the list stuck on the wall, and we’re back into the swoop of a chair and the beat of a footstep.
Write By Numbers Theatre took part in a regeneration project in Brixton market that, alongside other factors, helped gentrify the area. They were accused of having socially cleansed the market, with someone pointing out on Facebook that no black locals went anymore. The play acknowledges this and the company is open to criticsm. The thing is, I’m surrounded by an entirely white audience in an area that has been gentrified over the past decade. Maybe they had a point. Maybe we are a product of gentrification, and we’re continuing it. Maybe we are part of the problem.
Regeneration feels like a chance to discuss what gentrification means to us and to Bristol. But it doesn’t feel like a call for revolution. I pass a homeless man on my way home after the show. I apologise for not having any change, but I keep on walking.
Regeneration was on at the re-located Wardrobe Theatre. Click here for their full programme.