I didn’t see Home, the show Cressida Brown made in 2005 using interviews with inhabitants of the Beaumont estate in east London, and she knows I won’t be the only one. So her 10-years-on documentary sequel is full of flashbacks: of the dilapidated high-rise towers then scheduled for demolition, of bodies and voices recorded back then. She builds up a conversation between past and present in which absence is dominant. It’s not just the buildings that have disappeared, replaced by low-rise blocks: many of the people have long since moved on, to Romford, across Essex, to countryside places. From the beginning, Re:Home shivers with ghosts.
The film flickers as it travels along dingy corridors, past gun-metal doors and scattered graffiti. Another grainy films shows five boys sitting around a table, seen from the shoulders down. Names scroll past: Tiffany, Gladstone, Billie, Amber, Nancy Suggs and the old couple, Brenda, Sam, Darren, Nathan. Four actors jump between roles, ageing and rejuvenating within seconds. One thing smashes into another, until past and present become prisms through which each can be seen differently. From this angle the Beaumont towers are nasty places, dangerous: riddled with drugs, terrorised by gangs; people drop rubbish from the balconies and their bodies from the rooftops. From that angle the towers are a playspace for cheeky children, community centres with exquisite views. Home. It would be so easy to read these opposite versions as reality and nostalgia, but it’s not quite that simple. Was the problem the towers, or the people? Brown holds both possibilities in equal balance.
Home was a promenade performance within one of the three towers; rather than create any kind of facsimile of either the original flats or their replacements for Re:Home, Georgia Lowe creates one of the Yard auditorium: a mirror image of the seating rake. Is it possible to look in that mirror and see the inhabitants of Beaumont as other – in the same way, for instance, that Gary Owen’s Effie is othered in Iphigenia in Splott? In watching and thinking about the distinct Beaumont community, the invitation is there to think about our own: the community we create within the theatre, the community we return to when we go home.
Within three months of moving into my family home, four yellow murder signs appeared within a five-minute walk of the front door. One stood on the street corner opposite, facing the sitting-room window. In the years since there have been flowers gathered up the road for a young person killed in a shooting and a young person stabbed on the bus. Around the corner a schoolgirl died when she was caught by a stray bullet while standing in a newsagent’s. Of course walking home late at night felt scary. But it’s surprisingly possible to co-exist with such violence, feel isolated from it almost. Re:Home takes a clear-eyed look at that coexistence, recognises its audience’s isolation, invites a relationship with those touched by it. The show is, essentially, a journey: from a panoramic view of the towers and their legacy, that slowly zooms the lens to focus intently on those five boys from the film. Re:Home shivers with ghosts because one of them didn’t survive.
In writing about it, it’s impossible not to recognise the craft of Re:Home. It’s perfectly put together. The cast are strong, the design is smart, the dramaturgy is neat. But for me, in the moment of watching, some spark to galvanise it all was missing. Home was a surprise for Brown, a gift of an idea from a local council worker, which won heaps of press and changed the way she went about making theatre. I can understand why she went back, but Re:Home feels like an intellectual exercise in which the spaces opened up by absence are somehow too big for what’s present to register. In closing itself down on the death of that single boy – as sad and pained and galling as it is – it limits a narrative that, to that point, Brown had kept so intriguingly, challengingly open.
Re:Home is on at The Yard Theatre until 5th March 2016. Click here for tickets.