Humane at The Pleasance : A gripping performance that tells the extraordinary true story of the power of ordinary people

Theatre

Following a hugely successful audio drama, Polly Creed’s Humane comes to the stage to tell the true story of how one community in Brightlingsea, a small port in rural Essex, came together to stand up against animal cruelty. Only this peaceful protest soon faced the wrath of police brutality. This engaging production forces us to question the scruples of companies involved in the food chain, as well as that of our police service. What Humane has got across most masterfully is the extraordinariness of ordinary people. What is most incredible is how the bravery and momentum of this large protest group is captured by a cast of only two actors (Francesca Isherwood and Colette Zacca).

We are transported back to 1995. Isherwood’s character (Linda) portrays a young mother whose partner has been deployed to Bosnia. During a phone call, she is flustered by the daily toll of parenthood and shares her exhaustion with her partner. We never hear his voice but the compunctious tone in Isherwood’s responses reveal that the mundanity of her domestic hardships wearies him, or at least seems trivial. The nostalgia of the nineties pervades the entire performance, with plastic corded landline telephones, grainy footage from domestic camcorders used to show us real footage of the protest, and those nylon tracksuits. Isherwood’s character also serves as a homage to the 90s single-mother who has faced not quite the same consequences of Victorian acerbity, but the sanctimonious hostility that followed the conservative ideology that defined the Thatcher era (and eventually gave birth to The Jeremy Kyle Show). Zacca plays a character (Alice) that we are immediately familiar with; she is the woman sat with us at bus stops or in the queue with us at the local supermarket. You can imagine that she always has tissues and mint humbugs at her disposal in her handbag. Alice could easily be mistaken as unremarkable, even forgettable, but she is ubiquitous. For this reason, the fact that our characters meet shopping at the supermarket – a relatively routine and mundane chore – couldn’t be more perfectly written. Forgetting her wallet at home in the manic upheaval of young motherhood, Linda is saved by Alice’s offer to pay for her groceries. A boon of kindness in a world that already seems fairly abrasive. We later see that Alice’s altruism makes her anything but unremarkable, and is central to her role as an animal-rights campaigner. 

The spartan lack of props or stage-craft is not in any way detrimental to the seamless storytelling of this extortionary story. Even as we watch a scene of the two sat by the sea, you can almost smell the air and feel the chill of the English coastline in the way Zacca’s hands are clasped tightly around a cup of awful coffee, accompanied by their eyes that seem fixated onto the distance, hypnotised by the invisible sea. Linda’s baby is portrayed by a rolled blanket which invites us to use our own imagination, and this scarcity of props is conducive in reminding us of the meagreness of resources that these humble protesters would have had at their disposable. 

The thrill and energy behind a campaign is made so perceptible as the two of them organise and rally their town for the protests by making endless phone calls. Isherwood and Zacca both holding their telephones in their hands, an invisible wall suggesting they are in their respective homes, both speaking with vigour and zeal down the receiver as they mobilise their community. If Rocky Balboa was an animal-rights campaigner this would have been his training montage.  Finally, the steaming energy of the pas de deux of their phone canvassing comes to a graceful conclusion, as they twirl around one another and entwine themselves in their telephone cords. It’s as if this campaign now binds the two of them in an unbreakable friendship. 

The climax of this production is the anticipated protest itself. Coupled with the live footage of legions of protestors – some in wheelchairs, with pushchairs and walking sticks – this momentous event is quickly overshadowed by shocking police brutality. Using real audio clips of news correspondents reporting on the kettling of the protestors, the panic and mayhem has us sitting on the edges of our seats, tearful and in suspense. Isherwoods lifts her pram over her head to pass it to an invisible hand to carry out of the crowd. This segment of the performance deserved a round of applause on its own. 

Even with this seemingly unbreakable bond, we see the two explosively break apart over a fellow campaigner is also known as to be a National Front member to Linda (who is white), but not to Alice who is Black. Polly Creed’s writing here reveals that this is not just a dramatization of a true event. Creed has managed to avoid writing a script that could’ve come across as sanctimonious, and has instead written an authentic script that avoids the portrayal of its characters as part of a homogenous group. It has addressed something that it perhaps not even widely discussed within progressive/radical groups out of fear of engaging in identity politics. Instead Creed discusses the relationship between race and activism with care, sensitivity and cutting realism. 

4/5

Humane will be running until the 21st November.

For more information: https://www.pleasance.co.uk/event/humane-0#overview

Photo Credit: Ali Wright

Battersea Poltergie LIVE! at the Clapham Grand: A ghost story as terrifying as the 3ft trick-or-treaters at your door

Reviews, Theatre

Following a hit podcast – The Battersea Poltergeist – leading paranormal investigators Evelyn Hollow and Ciaran O’Keeffe have returned, but this time live on stage. They are joined by Danny Robins, writer of the smash-hit West End ‘2:22: A Ghost Story’ starring Lily Allen.

We enter the Clapham Grand, which was once a dance hall venue that was attended by the young Shirley Hitchings – the protagonist of this ghost story. It its evident that this venue is probably well past its glory days, despite its ornate interior, like a stately home that has now been inhabited by squatters. A sign by the door reads “NO RE ADMISSION AT ALL.” “EVER.” ONCE YOU’RE GONE YOU’RE GONE”. If anything was going to ward off evil spirits tonight, it was this amateurish A4 laminated sign artlessly made using MS Word. Having said that, the entrance has certainly been given a great deal of attention, most probably not by our resident sign-maker. A disco ball spins, scattering light across the walls and ceilings, which are covered in Halloween bunting, skeleton figures and cobwebs. The hallway towards the stalls has an enormous Medusa head, where people gather to take turns posing with it. Now, you may see the old school hotdog carts and think ‘How quaint. How carnival-esque!’ For the sake of your insides, please keep away from them.

The excited chatter is cut through with a piercing scream. The show begins. Danny Robins is like the Brian Cox of the esoteric. He livens the audience with comedy, and audience interaction as he asks those of us who believe the story of the Hitching’s house haunting, and those of us who don’t. The room is split between sceptics and delivers. The aim of this evening is to plant that small seed of doubt in the minds of the sceptic, and to further engage and inform those of us who are already convinced. At one point, a deafening loud rumble is played in the theatre to mimic the level of noise that would have been heard by the Hitchings family, according to report by the neighbours. We are guided to possible explanations by Ciaran O’Keeffe, such as the proximity of the house near the railway tracks. This is then followed by a rebuttal by Evelyn Hollow who explains the discrepancies that these explanations cannot account for. However, neither of them are really able to match the same level of enthusiasm as Danny Robins, with Hollow spinning on her chair seemingly unaware of the audience at one point.

If you are hoping that this show was going to deliquesce the staunch skeptic in you, then I’m afraid that it will only make your world-view firmer.The powerpoint glitches make the show feel like an amateur’s lecture, though Robins tries his best to mask this with comedy. Shirley Hitchings’ presence in the audience, however, was an important element to the show which even piqued the curiosity of those of us who still don’t quite believe this story.

Ultimately, this show did not translate well on stage, and would be best enjoyed through the podcast.

1/5

Natives: Race and class in the ruins of empire by Akala

Books

Empire.

A word that, almost instinctively, echoes in your mind as you say it. Powerful, omniscient, mighty and vast. Yet, something pervades the air when thinking upon the British empire.

The Sunday Times bestseller discusses the British empire in the context of Akala’s own perspective as the ‘child of a British-Caribbean father and a Scottish/English mother’. However, many of the inferences he makes from his experiences resonate with anyone of colour, growing up in Britain with family from a non-white ‘commonwealth’ country. Essentially, this book provides some explanation for the disparity between what you’re taught in school, and what you’re taught at home (or in Akala’s case, the history he was taught in his pan-African Saturday school) and they way in which empire lies like a ghost under our floorboards.

image

My favourite chapter is ‘Empire and Slavery in the British Memory’, which marks the end of the first third of the book, and opens with a quote from Winston Churchill:

I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes. It would spread lively terror.

When we were taught about Winston Churchill at school, we learnt of his wicked sense of humour, lightning wit, his masterful skills in oration and what a brilliant strategist he was, protecting our shores from the fascism of the Germans. What I learnt at home from my Indian, immigrant parents was “what they don’t want to tell you” about the great Winston Churchill, who also once said:

‘I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia…by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place’

Truly inspiring words of a hero. The most interesting part of this tradition of teaching extra-curricular history, amongst ethnic minority parents, is that at no point do they believe that ‘they’ are trying to hide the history from ‘us’ but rather, concealing it from ‘themselves’ – which is perhaps an even more sinister thought. In this chapter, Akala uses the example of  William Wilberforce – Britain’s most famous evangelical Christian and abolitionist of the trans- Atlantic slave trade – as one of the ‘self-serving fairy tales’ that ‘eases a nation’s cognitive dissonance’ with the empire.

Wilberforce is currently described on Wikipedia as the ‘leader of the movement to stop the slave trade – as Akala puts it, ‘what a pile of twaddle’. Never mind Jean-Jacques Dessalines, an African born, ex-slave who led the defeat of the French and declared Haiti an independent state, becoming the first country to abolish slavery in the Western hemisphere. Similarly, the end of apartheid is boiled down to Nelson Mandela, with the omission of the support given by Castro against the racist regime, and the independence of India is condensed down to Mahatma Gandhi and his policy of non-violence. The idea that peaceful protests and non-violent methods alone suddenly triggered a conscience into people who were profiting beyond their wildest dreams through racist legislation and war-mongering, for centuries, is simply laughable – yet, it’s generally accepted as truth in schools and wider society. It is not to say that Wilberforce had no role to play in the abolition of slavery, or Gandhi in the independence of India, but rather to clarify on what the education system has failed to tell nationalist Britain. Simple solutions to complex institutions, based in white supremacy, simply don’t exist; there isn’t just one man who’s up for the job of dismantling centuries of exploitation, rape, and murder. Of course, it’s much more convenient to teach.

According to Akala, we find ourselves in the ruins of Empire. Both Conqueror and Conquered are re-building their identity, piecing themselves together from what is salvageable amongst the rubble of old traditions and history, as well sourcing new ideas to construct the rest. In turn, this is creating somewhat of a hybrid identity for both, creating conflicts, which are evident today in the rise of right-wing populism across the globe. This is all due to the fragility of identity when it is based in the history of the ruling classes.

Deformed, depleted and centuries behind on their industrial revolutions, the newly independent states of the Commonwealth were left to explain why they weren’t doing as well as their fellow Commonwealth states, such as Canada or Australia, who had received dominion over their countries for being white, and thus deemed fit to govern themselves. Rather than draw conclusions from historical fact, it became an instinctive assumption to link level of melanin to level of development. This is where the education system’s irresponsibility perpetuates ignorance. Akala describes many incidents of conflict with teachers unable to comprehend the possibility of the intelligence of the enslaved/conquered. And whilst it is often mentioned that the empire gave India the rule of law (which is questionable anyway), it’s not mentioned that the empire also forced mothers to rub opium into their nipples to quieten their hungry babies as a result of the heavy burden of excessive taxation, lining British pockets. Even today, the study of eugenics is legitimised by prestigious institutions such as the University of Cambridge (The Guardian).

Akala closes this book somewhat pessimistically, understandably, as banana skins make their come-back on football pitches and far-right movements pick up their pace across Europe, the US and UK. However, this flagrant racism is less tolerated in comparison to the days of Akala’s childhood, considering the level of surveillance in the form of mobile phones has changed everything, and criminal prosecution of racially-aggravated crime is a lot more sincere than it was in the days of the tragic case of Stephen Lawrence. This is not to say the system is perfect, as racial profiling and the treatment of non-white, mentally unwell people in custody is still a problem, and the survivors of Grenfell are still waiting for justice. But, when our fathers and uncles are able to tell you first-hand stories of having their heads kicked in for having the audacity to turn up to a football match to show their support for their team, things have certainly progressed since, slowly, but surely. And when you consider the centuries of plunder and slavery that took place over the course of the British empire, I think it can only be expected that it will take centuries of healing before the snatched souls of the natives can be put to rest.

 

Get your copy of Natives for £16.99