Barrel Organ, a new company of graduates from the University of Warwick, has announced itself fairly well thus far. With its debut production, Nothing by up-and-coming playwright Lulu Raczka, it took the National Student Drama Festival by storm in April, scooping four awards (including the Sunday Times Young Playwriting Award for Raczka and the Buzz Goodbody Student Director’s Award for the show’s director Ali Pidsley) and receiving fantastic reviews across the board from the festival’s coverage. It’s one of the highlights of the autumn season at the Camden People’s Theatre, but first it has two weeks in Edinburgh at Summerhall. I had a chat with some of the company about the show and what audiences can expect from Nothing.
“Nothing is exceptionally simple really – it’s a series of monologues about individuals who for various reasons and in various ways feel cut off and separate to the world around them. And they each tell the audience their story”, says Ali Pidsley, the show’s director. But once you start to understand the way in which Nothing works you can’t help feeling Pidsley is selling the production short somewhat – as its award for Creative Risk at NSDF earlier this year proves. “In terms of what’s different about it, I suppose you would say that the fact that it is not simply a series of uninterrupted monologues, the fact that they cut over and into one another, and from a performance point of view, the fact that this is an unrehearsed cut – the actors don’t know who is going to speak when.” Yes, that certainly sounds “exceptionally simple” to me.
Really though it sounds to me as if Nothing is a truly refreshing and inventive subversion of the narrative form in a way that brings a spontaneity and an honesty to every performance, as every performance is different and thereby impossible to recite by rote. “The staging is stripped down to its absolute simplest – there is no tech, no lighting, no set, not costume, no stage. Again – it is reducing theatre to its simplest purest form – just people sharing a space.” I ask Euan Kitson, one of the actors, what performing in this thoroughly unconventional way is like: “It’s incredibly exciting. It is also liberating in ways that are unlike any other. You have to learn how to ride each performance like a wave. Depending on how it is going or how the others have come in with their speeches, you have to pitch yours accordingly.” Kitson also believes this can only be a good thing in terms of the performances as “you cannot be flabby or sentimental or over-egg your favourite bits because someone else will just jump in. You have to be very direct and simple whilst playing off the vibe of the audience and the other actors.”
The common thread throughout the piece, then, is simplicity, in terms of production values; the performances and the text itself. Andrew Haydon cites Lulu Raczka’s text in the same literary cannon as Simon Stephens, Sarah Kane and Chris Thorpe, which is praise indeed, and it is easy, hearing what the play is about, to understand why. Examining the isolation and the disenfranchisement that young people can feel in the twenty-first century – the Nothing of the title could have many meanings including the barren socio-economic landscape available to large swathes of young people today – taps into frustration with austerity Britain.
On the subject of austerity, the production itself adds to this. Pidsley explains: “There is also a practical element to the staging – it’s cheap! And that is not to be overlooked – this is a production that we can do in any space, with any amount of people, just give us an audience, and an hour of their time, and we can do it…Nothing has been referred to as ‘austerity theatre’ and we quite like that – it is in its very form responding to the financial pressures of making and touring theatre in this country at the moment.”
Moving forward, things look fairly exciting for Barrel Organ. After its exposure at Edinburgh, Pidsley is hoping it might interest programmers in Nothing: “it’s a good show and it is such an easy show to put on – we are asking very very little of our programmers – we don’t really need anything. We have a couple of dates in London venues already confirmed for the autumn, which is very exciting, be we would love to get some regional interest in the show. It would be wonderful fun and so easy to tour, and we don’t want it to only be a show for the capital, it’s important for us that everyone, all over, has access to it.” As well as that there are, I’m told, “several exciting things in the pipeline” besides Nothing. “We have another two productions in development – a piece about political apathy, which might be exciting to develop further in a general election, and a new piece that Lulu has written and I am directing again about all sorts of different forms of violence present in our society.” Barrel Organ certainly gives the impression that exciting things are to come and that Nothing is only the beginning. If you’re looking for something a little different in Edinburgh this summer, Nothing might be your ticket.
Nothing is at Summerhall until 17 August. For more information and tickets, visit the EdFringe website.