Live from Television Centre

On Sunday night, theatre people ( and hopefully others) up and down the country tuned in to BBC Four to watch Battersea Arts Centre and Arts Council England take over the former Television Centre, now a building site for luxury flats. Over two hours, four theatre companies streamed their work for live audiences in the comfort of their homes, to push the boundaries of theatre’s adaptability to the popular small screen and to challenge typical TV programming. I watched in bed and with twitter open so I could keep half an eye on #livefromTVC; it was a gloriously anarchic experiment that I hope ushers in a new era for telly and theatre even though not every element worked as well as it could have – but that’s the point of experimentation.

Gecko’s The Time of Your Life celebrates life cycles in a circular swirling movement with a “Truman Show”-style storyline of meta-television. The close-up nature of telly supports the characters’ intimacy and expressiveness well, but the narrow framing reduced their normally expansive work to a much smaller scale. I didn’t mind the spinning camera work, but twitter buzzed with complaints of dizziness. It was rough and ready, with limbs often out of the frame and movements ahead of the action, but that supports the “liveness”. Their piece wasn’t the most accessible and most suitable to open the evening either; Richard DeDomenici’s Redux Project would have been a more appealing start to non-theatre goers.

The long running Redux Project is adapted for the evening with joyfully irreverent recreations of classic moments from BBC television history. DeDomenici has a friendly, laid-back persona thinly veiling biting political commentary just as sharp as “The Revolution Will Be Televised”, but less blatant and without personal attacks. The live artist aims, “to disrupt the cinema industry by making counterfeit sections of popular films”; he satisfies with powerful alternative perspectives that are funny on the surface, but pose bigger challenges to cinematic convention underneath.

Common Wealth’s No Guts, No Heart, No Glory is a verbatim piece sharing the experiences of young women from Bradford who are Muslim boxers. It’s a powerful piece challenging stereotypes and giving voice to a demographic often ignored at best or stigmatized at worst. This worked brilliantly on telly, capturing the intensity and passion of the characters despite some strange camera angles.

Backstage in Biscuit Land by Touretteshero (Jess Thom) becomes Broadcast from Biscuit Land, the wonderful show that’s inclusive, informative, and contains plenty of biscuits and cats. Thom has a noticeable form of Tourettes that manifests in physical and verbal tics used for comedic effect in her show, and a reminder that understanding for people with disabilities is still lacking. In a more surreal moment, Thom reminisces about a particularly funny tic about Keith Chegwin in a quiet theatre; cameras then reveal Cheggers there in the live studio audience.

The variety of the evening reminds audiences of the power of live performance and its relevance to everyone. I’m certain that anyone who watched would be able to find something appealing in the evening, and hopefully discovered a company or artist previously unknown to them. Even if it was mainly theatre makers and goers that watched, TV can still reach audiences that are otherwise unable to travel to an individual performance. At best, those who don’t consider themselves theatre people will have found pleasure in the event, and there’s hope that the powers that be discover there is room for dancing biscuits, physical theatre and political performance on our small screens as well as our big stages.

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Britannia Fury, Hen & Chickens Theatre

2015-05-07 20.33.52 (2)“Never meet your heroes.”

This stark warning from one character to another foreshadows the absurd, disappointing story about to unfold. Part satire, part pantomime, part superhero spin off, Britannia Fury introduces us to Britain’s only real superhero. He is now an elderly alcoholic living in a council flat after his epic rise and consequential fall into obscurity, but a young reporter has located his address and is determined to share his forgotten story with the world. A mix of performance styles and a story that can’t quite seem to determine what it wants to say prevents the concept from developing into a strong script.

Mr Jameson (Kit Smith) is the exaggerated stereotype of an editor of The Daily London Leader. Loud and abrasive, he provides complete contrast to the nervous Charlie (Ethan Loftus), a young reporter not even on Jameson’s radar. Charlie has the scoop of the year and negotiates with Jameson to let him interview 70s and 80s superhero Britannia Fury, who saved the nation from villainy only to mysteriously retire and disappear. Charlie wants to share the story of this forgotten hero with the nation. Loftus plays Charlie naturalistically, with a quiet, geeky passion for Fury. Whilst both Smith and Loftus embody their characters respective styles well, they clash and cause the production concept to look like it lacks direction. The other characters add to the soupy style mash up rather than siding with one of the earlier, established performance styles. Fury (Geoffrey Kirkness) is a mix of stereotype and naturalism, which adds depth but only further confuses the production’s identity. This is an issue with the script and direction rather than the performers, but one that can be solved by the playwright choosing one approach and sticking with it across all the characters.

The storyline, with its clear premise, becomes convoluted as Charlie and Fury meet and delve into his past. There are some predictable plot twists that lead to a tragic end; again, the initial idea has good potential to explore the human condition through Fury’s story but this is glossed over and made light of with comedy and exaggeration. Charlie’s initial shock of meeting his fallen hero is underplayed, then forgotten, but his emotional journey hits some good points. Their interview occasionally drags, as if the play is trying to buy time rather than following the natural narrative arc and getting to the point. As Charlie delves deeper into Fury’s twisted Tory past, it becomes clear that Jameson’s initial warning rings true.

The idea of the fallen hero in modern times certainly has mileage and Hillcrest Artists begin to solidify interpretations of the theme but they don’t quite come to fruition. Is the play about politics? Is it about society’s short attention span? Or, is it smaller and about the relationship between two people? Is it making fun of superheroes? Is it about Fury’s humanity? Really, it is all of these things and more, but for a play not much longer than an hour, this is too much to try to address. There are some touching moments and witty dialogue but underlying substance doesn’t quite materialise in Britannia Fury.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.