The London riots of 2011 were a terrifying time, but they also, for many, acted as a galvanising force: in a city where it’s common to never speak to your neighbours and we wear our self-inflicted isolation with pride, small, locally focused movements like Riot Clean Up became a phenomenon, with whole neighbourhoods taking to the streets with their brooms to help repair some of the damage inflicted. In fact, you have to wonder whether London’s triumphant Olympics, all smiling faces and welcoming strangers, would have been possible without this earlier show of civic unity.
Directed with perhaps too light a touch by Tessa Walker, Bernadette Russell’s new show, 366 Days of Kindness, stems from a similar need to create something positive not just from the wake of the riots themselves, but the feeling of helplessness they created: with big problems like inequality, the economy, political corruption and complacency too overwhelming to tackle, she set out to see what she could achieve on a micro, rather than macro, basis: by committing one act of kindness every day for a year (a leap year, hence the title). It’s certainly an admirable idea, which makes me feel all the more guilty that I didn’t really care for the show.
As with most one-woman shows, this stands or falls on its central performer (it’s not strictly one-woman, since Russell ably assisted by her likeably laconic real-life partner, Gareth Brierley, who effortlessly steals some of the best comic moments). Although I have seen – and liked – Russell in other incarnations (primarily her White Rabbit storytelling evenings), here she seemed to be overstretching thin material.
She starts with an admission that she ‘has not always been kind’ and recites a litany of childhood cruelties that, frankly, horrified both me and my companion (though, only children that we were, I have been assured by those with brothers and sisters that such sibling-inflicted atrocities are standard in most families), so perhaps that unfairly coloured the rest of the show for me. She then, in a rather scattershot fashion, describes her kind actions, which ranged from leaving food on people’s doorsteps (a step too far for most Londoners, I would have thought – would you eat something that a stranger left at your door?) to giving people handmade cards, to leaving money and books in public places and striking up conversations with strangers. More practical help was offered, too; she gave money to homeless people, donated to charity. Her narrative is split up with photos and video clips of her encounters (ably edited by Rob Kennedy and nicely breaking up the piece), as well as interviews with those for whom kindness is a job (a likeable and pragmatic vicar- though Russell does point out religion’s ambivalent relationship with poverty, highlighted by a ‘do not encourage the beggars’ sign outside a church) and those for whom involvement came by chance (Dan Thompson, the man who started the Riot Clean Up movement.)
But despite Russell’s obvious sincerity, and the financial cost her efforts entailed, at times it feels a little contrived, self-consciously quirky and self-congratulatory. While I am sure her motives are noble, you can’t help wondering just how purely altruistic these acts of kindness were, (she did, after all, parlay them into a book and a show), and at times I couldn’t help thinking that running around giving balloons to people on the underground is all well and good, but giving a flask of soup to a homeless man every day for a year would have been more productive – only that would make for a less exciting story. Perhaps it’s also that, being a Northerner by birth and upbringing, even after over a decade in the capital I’m less inclined to see striking up a conversation with a waitress or bus driver as ‘kindness’, more common human interaction and there were times that, for all her down-to-earth persona, Russell veered dangerously close to expecting praise for being nice to the plebs.
That’s not to say the piece is without charm, and it certainly has plenty of heart, and watching the audience I sensed that I was in the minority with my criticisms which inevitably feel, in the face of such a well-meaning manifesto, slightly small-minded and petty. Both Russell and Brierley can be very funny (when Russell dials it down to deadpan, she is capable of a killer delivery) , and they use their limited props – boxes, shoes, a collection of seemingly random odds and ends – well. There’s a pleasing, warm and genuine chemistry between the pair, and I was much taken with Brierley’s role as the self-deprecating, long-suffering foil to his excitable other half. But a tighter edit and a more self-critical eye would, I feel, have made for a sharper piece.