There are many off-West End venues that do their upmost to support and nurture up-and-coming theatrical and artistic talent. See the work of the Young Vic or Unicorn theatres, or Battersea Arts Centre, which, with its frequent Scratch sessions, is a prime example of good practise. Battersea Arts Centre, which has recently taken the decision to shed its previous ‘BAC’ persona, offered audiences a glimpse of the future of theatre on Thursday, with Homegrown’s Brave New World Festival, a showcase of theatre creators and devisors presented before a friendly and open-minded audience.
First on the bill was Demi Mselkyu’s piece #Virtualinsanity, a thoughtful and thought-provoking comment on society’s dependence and addiction on modern technology and social media. This was followed by All In, by Jojo Townsend, who, perhaps better suited to the comedy circuit, combined various forms of engagement, including audio-visual and audience participation into a downright funny and concise performance on the concept of courage. As different as it was startling was Alice Malseed’s Seen In Soft Focus, in which a protagonist describes a drink and drug fuelled night out in East London (quelle surprise…) which ends with the unwanted sexual advances of a party host. At times witty, at times unsettling, Malseed’s piece was constantly absorbing, and provides an exciting peek at this style of brutally gritty monologue-led theatre.
After a brief interlude and room change (something else at which Battersea Arts Centre seems to excel), we were greeted by Amanda Larsson’s Cinderella Brain Chaos. Larsson spent her ten-or-so minutes being gloriously surreal and silly, her life-story was boiled down to a series of metaphors, or foodstuffs, which were then literally chewed up and spat out into the melting pot (played ably here by an ASDA plastic bag). For instance, Larsson’s mother was a baker, thus a hot-cross bun is partially ingested, much to the groans of a clearly engrossed (and grossed out) audience.
After Larsson came What is War?, a lecture-style performance on the logistics and emotions of war, from the horrors of the Somme to Hollywood’s rendition of it. Inevitably at Scratch events, something goes wrong, but Florence Garrett’s ability to overcome the frankly unreadable projections accompanying her piece was admirable, quick and charming.
Philippa Quinn’s as yet unmanned piece was a real highlight, a frantically-paced pastiche of the murder mystery pulp-fiction. Quinn plays a desperate author, creating stock characters (for instance, the foxy femme-fatale, who was, er, “like silk, no, like chocolate, no, like silk drifting over chocolate”), as her story The Mystery of the Locked Room evolves before her very eyes. Was Quinn’s piece very similar indeed to The 39 Steps, now coming up to its seventh year at the Criterion Theatre? Yes, but who cares – it was thoroughly entertaining nonetheless.
Launderette Superstar is Fortuna Burke’s first solo venture. Burke’s creation writes her own reviews, so perhaps there is little need for me to comment. Needless to say her delightfully hammed-up, almost Ab Fab-esque character had the audience eating out of her hand.
What is worth noting is that what united these performers, apart from their talent, wit and creative thought, was that they were all women. The dearth of female performers on TV and on stage is yet to be addressed – note the lack of women panellists on comedy shows for instance. This makes it all the more important therefore that Battersea Arts Centre is providing a platform for artists so underrepresented elsewhere.
I sadly had to miss the later pieces by Yolanda Mercy, Connie Treves, Rose Wardlaw and Ryan Phillips, but if the performances that preceded them are anything to go by, then be in no doubt that the audience would be witnessing the first steps of some potentially special works of theatre.
Homegrown’s Brave New World Festival was a Scratch event at Battersea Arts Centre on 21 March. For more information, see the Battersea Arts Theatre website.