Features Festivals Published 30 July 2012

Almeida Festival 2012

The Almeida Festival showcases work from new and emerging companies. This year's festival included work by Inspector Sands, Greyscale and Inua Ellams.
Catherine Love

Audacious dance theatre, halting work-in-progress, tentative audience participation. Perhaps not what might be expected on the stage of the Almeida Theatre, but throughout the month of July this is just a snapshot of what audiences encountered as part of the theatre’s annual festival, under the tantalising strapline of “a kaleidoscope of theatre for the culturally curious”. It is the venue’s yearly opportunity to open its doors to new and different work, offering up its stage and resources to emerging artists and companies.

A timely exploration of Britishness.

The festival’s flagship show, a new piece from Inspector Sands, stands out as a timely statement of Britishness. Festooned in bunting and buoyed by tea, it also scratches away at the essential quirkiness of British identity and at our nosy fascination with the lives of others. Its title, Mass Observation, refers to the movement of the same name that was born in the 1930s, a strange and mildly sinister extension of spying on the neighbours that came into its own during the heightened suspicion of the Second World War. Binoculars and trench coats all round.

There is a lot going on here, but to Inspector Sands’ credit it never feels like too much. Through the central anchor of the Mass Observation movement, the piece feels its way around themes of identity, loneliness, legacy, communication and connection, cannily moving from the seemingly innocuous intrusion of these early observers to today’s environment of surveillance and constant digital interruptions. Projection provides one of the show’s more memorable images, as the Almeida’s back wall becomes suddenly clogged with a deluge of digital information, an unsettling visualisation of the pervasive ubiquity of mass communication.

While its two halves could be more fluently linked, Mass Observation’s marriage of wartime and present day hits perceptively on a current mood of trepidation, the same widespread feeling of teetering on a precipice that clouded the air in the summer of 1939. It is a leaden atmosphere that also haunts Inua Ellams’ spoken word performance Knight Watch, a lyrical and prescient vision of modern day warriors duelling on the streets of London and tearing up the city landscape.

The shadow of last summer’s riots is unavoidable. Ellams, however, sidesteps social comment, and wisely so. Instead the story he spins in the graffitied – and, on the night I attended, damp – surroundings of Spa Fields is a magical realist fable of conflict and friendship, of the natural rising from the earth to swallow the urban. Spoken through three different characters, Ellams’ captivating voice subtly shifts inflection, morphing effortlessly into the personalities he inhabits while simultaneously retaining the aura of the storyteller.


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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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