There’s something decidedly downbeat about the vision of London that stains the flyer for Battersea Arts Centre’s 1-on-1-on-1 Festival, a form of sanitised speed dating for those who get off on smugly tweeting conversations overheard on public transport. The capital, according to the marketing team, is coloured by “a blur of lives we’ll never know [as] we rush past each other on the street, queue together in the supermarket and sit side by side on the tube”. Thank heavens, then, that in the midst of all this antagonism, there’s yet another opportunity to listen to stories from strangers, with little chance to join in… and absolutely no opportunity to politely ask them to pipe down.
Upon entry, we’re all given a piece of coloured card with a route number and schedule of stops. For a festival that is meant to deliver a tangible, verbatim tour of London, there’s something notably bland about the design here, which pays more heed to TFL’s strict intellectual property guidelines than the city it seeks to map. Our timetable plots our journey around the building, tempting us with the names of six storytellers. As far as the organisers are concerned, there are no rules of interaction. However, the silent laws of etiquette dictate that we must listen carefully as the stories unravel, and leave pretty promptly after the speakers wind their stories to a close and point to the door.
The bite-sized narratives are hard to fault, and the journey up and down the arts centre’s labyrinthine staircases, populated by faces that grown increasingly familiar as the night goes on, generates a dim warmth. Sent on the Green Journey, I’m lucky enough to meet Reuben Alfred-Lecky, a self-assured yet humble young man with an unimposing vitality and gentle, streetwise spirituality. Reuben tells me of how he broke out of the boxes imposed by his school assessments to pursue his passion for scootering. His message is simple: if you have a dream, follow it.
After reluctantly moving on, I eagerly consume the stories of five others. From a tablet computer, Eleanor speaks to us from a clinic, telling us about her eating disorder and the dysfunctional family that brought it into existence. “Don’t let anyone tell you that London is too busy,” she urges, after delivering a frank, single-take account of how she sought refuge on friends’ sofas and through relentless walks across London’s streets. There’s little polished about Eleanor’s performance, but the distance measured by the screen gives it an air of finality. Because we can’t respond to Eleanor, this segment demands very little from us, and it’s an honour to be trusted with such raw, personal subject matter.
Despite the absence of technology, there’s something more emphatically one-sided about the remaining four stories in my journey. The narratives themselves are compelling snapshots. With a literary richness and transporting personalisation, Nehanda Loiseau laments Haiti, her country of origin: “Everyone who stayed died. It was if she was punishing those who left.” Next, in a tale that meanders through the crisp hours before our city fully awakens, Charlie Kane dishes out an ethereal vision of Hampstead Heath. Perched on the edge of a bathtub, well-spoken David Hallworth comes clean about a rebellious youth spent south of the river, his inconclusive story dappled with in-jokes and mischief. Octogenarian Barbara recounts how a romantic fling with a Bulgarian man 50 years her junior came out of her primal cry to be loved. Momentarily, our desire to interact was eliminated as Barbara read our thoughts, assuring us that there was “no hanky panky”.
As it accepts and leeches off the myth that London is a hostile place, there is something subtly exploitative about the presentation of these stories. Aside from the occasional hurried interjection, these windows into strangers’ lives repel true and fulfilling dialogues, and even a kind note left for each storyteller at the candlelit conclusion fails to balance the weight of this 1-on-1-on-1 pile-up.
London Stories: A 1-ON-1-ON-1 Festival is at Battersea Arts Centre until Saturday 28 September. For more information and tickets, see the Battersea Arts Centre website.