Trap Street takes its name from the fictitious streets drawn on maps by cartographers as devices to expose copyright violators or copycats. It’s a concept that feels endlessly rich, and a perfect starting point for a play. Trap streets are not real, and yet they are traces of a past legacy, born out of an ambition to map out a home, and have become indelible parts of a location’s geography (the London A-Z apparently has around one hundred of them).
Collaborative company Kandinsky masterfully uses this idea to chart the recent history of estates in London. Austen Estate exists on one of these trap streets, and the 80-minute show explores the changing attitude towards such buildings. Housing planners, architects, and BBC documentary-makers in the 1960s champion the welfare state ideals crushed into concrete, but they are quickly followed by 1970s reactionary critics lamenting the isolated lifestyle estates allegedly perpetuate.
Amid all that, of course, are the people who actually live there, Trap Street’s primary focus. Co-writers Lauren Mooney and James Yeatman, who also directs, chart the life of Andrea, played by Danusia Samal as a young girl growing up on the Austen estate with her mum Val and brother Graham, and by Amelda Brown as an old woman, who finds herself a beneficiary of right-to-buy legislation fifty years on. The show typifies different trajectories of estate-dwellers without value judgment, but with precise insight.
Graham, (Hamish MacDougall) benefits in many ways; he makes a healthy recovery from an early childhood with diphtheria (due to poor living conditions in their prior home), and promisingly leaves the estate for university. Andrea rebels against her mother Val, a warrior for the residents’ association and champion of community, leaving London to live in Spain, only to return and find her flat being let out illegally. None of the characters are cast as saintly or villainous. Instead, a detailed and stirring portrait of family dynamics is carved out with compassion and care, with each person’s coping mechanisms and ambitions traced clearly.
Trap Street is ferociously intelligent, poignant, and as intricate as the labyrinthine passages of the Austen Estate. Part of its punch is in temporal leaps from past to further past to present, with the years denoted by a cathode ray TV screen in the corner of Joshua Gadsby and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s set. It avoids a detached episodic history of estates that could obscure the continuity of life in these complexes, finding its narrative arc not through simple chronology but through memory, emotion, and aspiration. It evokes a lived experience, one as complicated and contradictory as the planning and history of estates. Actors shift between characters – the impeccable Brown plays the grown-up Andrea and Val – and beautifully juxtapose the characters’ relationships against themselves and to their home.
Like other Kandinsky shows, devised scenes play out collaboratively with a smart and generous cast, and are underscored by brilliant and unsettling music performed by Zac Gvirtzman. Brooms held up by actors depict the brutal and meandering geometry of the estate – neat, but not the most lasting of images.
Attention to the human aspect of urban planning is continually underlined. Trap Street shows dwellers fending for themselves against a lack of support or approachable human contact. This also, troublingly, echoes how estates are cast today, when they’re often portrayed as monolithic structures absent of humanity and worthy of destruction. Such a casting enables an erasure of the lives of their occupants, and leads Andrea to enact a protest against the demolition of her own home. Her protest appropriately takes the form of graffiti-writing, inscribing and thereby affirming the existence of past and present Austen Estate residents.
Trap Street also shows the lack of humanity apparent in present day dreams of urban luxury. Andrea visits a showroom for a new prime development where everything is mediated through virtual reality, equally devoid of human contact. The scene itself is a bit stagnant, with the audience watching Andrea wearing VR goggles without getting a glimpse of what she’s seeing, but it raises questions around the dreams we have for our homes and for ourselves.
And that’s where Trap Street is most successful and most moving. Dreams mothers have for their children, visions of modernity, hopes for upward mobility and aspirations for community are all explored. It examines not just the act of dreaming, but the difficulty in reconciling our dreams with reality, including their shortcomings and enduring effects. Regardless of whether they are true or realized, dreams are like trap streets, etched into existence. Right up to its Jane Austen allusions, there in the background all along, Trap Street effectively maps the process of British dreaming, and how that process is permanently written into the landscape itself.
Trap Street is at the New Diorama Theatre until March 31st. For more details, click here.