Halfway between the school play and a history lesson, this somewhat hit-and-miss production has community, and local stories, at its big, generous heart. South London-based London Bubble has produced a piece of community theatre rooted in local stories and performed by a cast of local people. While it does not always work as a piece of theatre, it is abundantly clear that this is an important project for both the Bubble and the participants.
Blackbirds grew out of “a year of intergenerational conversations about the effects of the Blitz on London and Londoners”. Living near Surrey Docks, residents of Mayflower Street in Bermondsey were among the worst-hit Londoners during the years of nightly bombing raids. Using this South London street as a microcosm is highly effective, and produces some touching moments. The still image of a young woman clutching a teddybear in a bombed-out building, compulsively smoking a cigarette, was hauntingly beautiful. Simple moments like this are when the piece is at its best.
The minimal set, with odds and ends of furniture creating different rooms or air-raid shelters, was effective and affecting. The cobbled-together feel of the mismatched chairs suited the precarious nature of the times, and a sparing use of sound effects ensured each bomb blast had a huge impact.
As a way of exploring a local area, of encouraging intergenerational conversations, of showcasing the memories of residents, Blackbirds is wholly successful. As a piece of theatre to be viewed more objectively, it did not always work for me. The use of projection was jarring and clumsy; it felt tacked on rather that integral to the piece and the sound levels and quality were not great. Simon Startin’s poetical script was lovely, but sometimes felt incongruous with the parts of the show that were made up of interviews and verbatim speech.
Overall, it felt like a series of vignettes, chopped up with dates and stats, rather than a coherent whole. The piece’s rootedness, its local-ness, is both a strength and a weakness; yes it is a brilliant way of bringing this specific community together (that much is evident from the mixed ages of the cast), but because the piece is so specific to Bermondsey experiences it does not translate well – it couldn’t be performed with the same effect outside South London, as the programme notes. It is an honest and compelling take on the stories at hand, but is not always successful when it tries for gravitas or a wider perspective.