When you’ve spent two days holed up under a railway arch with the directors and ensemble of Belt Up Theatre, phrases that would seem odd in any other context – “Quasimodo can’t wear shoes!”, “Is the cactus costume of props?”, “Have I told you what he thought of Guernica?” – start to feel entirely commonplace. That slightly warped reality that characterises Belt Up’s thoroughly absorbing, site-specific theatre unavoidably seeps into their everyday ‘normality’, and yet amongst the sheer oddness of it all there is a self-assured professionalism that demands you take this young company seriously. I was lucky enough to spend two days with Belt Up as they transformed the Southwark Playhouse into a weird and wonderful world…

Belt Up take over Southwark Playhouse

The get-in for the Belt Up Season at the Southwark Playhouse seems like a mammoth task – two vast empty rooms, one the studio theatre and the other a damp, shadowy vault, somehow need to be transformed into habitable performance spaces. As anyone who has seen a Belt Up show can attest, the world that they create within the theatrical space is as much a part of the play as any character or dialogue.  At its best it has the power to stop audiences in their tracks the moment they walk in, and keep them there long after a show has finished, snuggled into one of the sofas or lounging on floor cushions.

With four stark black walls staring down at you, it’s hard to imagine the cosy study that provides the setting for Lorca is Dead and Atrium; but this is the third time they’ve created that particular set, and to say they are dab hands at it would be an understatement. “Over the years we’ve learnt to scaff, lay turf… In Edinburgh we had to get three pianos up two flights of stairs – that was fun”, James Wilkes admits dryly, as he and fellow director Dominic J Allen abuse the back of a quaint and perfectly innocent old wardrobe. “It’ll be nice to have space to act in here. In Edinburgh we built the space and we thought it was lovely, and then the audience got in and we realised we essentially had a corridor to act in, which with all the dance routines was just ridiculous.”

It’s hardly surprising they felt cramped – as the seemingly endless contents of a removal van, which has been driven down from the company’s home in York, are spewed out across the Southwark Playhouse bar, they inform me matter-of-factly that it amounts to only a third of all their set and props. In true surrealist fashion, the first item that emerges from the back of the van is a tray of fake sausages, followed by a cuddly tiger in a crown, a ukulele and a fancy dress globe – it’s like watching the Generation Game on acid! Before long the Southwark Playhouse is awash with piles of fabric, floor cushions and furniture – at which point any sane person would give up and decide to stage Waiting for Godot – but not Belt Up, who get stuck in to sorting drapes and stuck up scaffolding towers to start transforming the studio into a thoroughly eclectic study.

Talking to members of the ensemble, it’s clear that there are practical benefits to their hands-on approach. “Building is all part of the experience and knowing the space. When you’ve invested this much into it you feel more at home in it. It’s that freedom of being able to move a glass or a book because it’s ours – there’s no designer saying ‘it has to be exactly like this’, and so we can do what we like,” says Serena Manteghi.

The space in turn affects the staging and performances. “Gags and whole sequences come just from fitting a play into a space,” says Marcus Emerton, including a delightful sequence in Lorca featuring a bunch of Surrealists and the aforementioned massacred wardrobe, which “wasn’t something we’d rehearsed” and simply grew out of a vague idea after they got in the space and saw how it could work. In the Edinburgh staging, Quasimodo saw Joe Hufton swinging from the ceiling on a rope – a trick he discovered simply by playing around one night. “I think it’s important with what we do to have a relationship with the space. I know how the space works because I’ve built that space, I know what it’s about, how it feels, why it feels that way.”

“And also on a practical level, if you do need to get up on that table, to know that if you step on it there it’s going to break” says Marcus, to which Joe adds “alternatively, it’s terrifying to know your mate did it with a hacksaw”. I wonder whether this DIY aesthetic has caused any Belt Up injuries. Initially they all go to great lengths to assure me that no-one has ever been seriously hurt setting up a show, which is negated entirely by the dizzying list of injuries and accidents including split heads and crushed hands that they then proceed to reel off. “No-one’s died” they say finally, which  I suppose is the best you can hope for.

The thought that in a couple of weeks they’ll have to take everything down and load it into the van again doesn’t seem to bother them. Having taken 10 shows to Edinburgh, the task of touring two or three around the country seems relatively straightforward. And anyway – as is obvious from any time spent watching them – getting involved and creating the space is all part of the fun and an essential part of being in the company. Other site-specific theatre may be a slave to the space, unable to think outside one location; however Belt Up’s ability to transform different locations – working with each places quirks and features to enhance their own performance – is what keeps their work constantly evolving and exciting.

Friday’s Part 2 of Belt Up Weekend will take a closer look at Belt Up’s very own surrealist masterpiece Lorca is Dead: or A Brief History of Surrealism.

Belt Up Theatre‘s Lorca is Dead, Atrium and Quasimodo run at the Southwark Playhouse until 27th November. Discount deals for tickets to all three shows are currently available.