Here is a show unlike anything else in London at the moment: an interactive exhibition that sees punters wander around an array of bronze statues, as an audioplay recounts stories of unimaginable human suffering over the past 400 years.
Writer-director Polly Wiseman immerses us in the trials faced by the destitute over London’s long history. Most notably, it draws two distinct parallels between the Great Fire of 1666 and the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017 (situated not far from the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith), and also between the Great Plague of 1665 and the current Covid pandemic. But it tells a variety of historical episodes, encompassing marches, court trials and V2 bombings in WW2. It breathes life into history that so often can feel impossibly remote.
Wiseman is loose with her temporal progression: the modern and the old are intermingled, with the same cast of actors vividly recounting with grief-stricken or panicked words the events in question as if they were really there. The impact of this stylistic decision is a timelessness to all that is told, generating an essential empathy for all Londoners who have seen suffering, even if it occurred centuries ago. Damage Control takes pains to highlight how it has always been the poorest in society that have suffered the most, even if it is the experience of the rich that typically receives the most interest.
The script is not, though, all doom and anger. There are moments of hilarious, cutting satire, as well as episodes of immense sadness. The accounts of Grenfell Tower, told from the perspective of parents and their children, are particularly gut-wrenching. With survivors and relatives still fighting for justice four years on, members of the government and local council could do well to listen to some of these heartbreaking accounts and be reminded just what the burning of the tower signified.
Meanwhile, acclaimed sculptor Josie Spencer has produced around life-size 30 nude human figures, which have been placed around the studio floor and walls, and hung from the ceiling. They come in all manner of colours, shapes, genders and positions. Some are fully intact, others have great cracks running through them, while others still only exist in fragments. All are aligned, however, in their expressions of pain and suffering – but also in the poise and strength that they are nonetheless imparted with. Because in the end, Damage Control uses its central theme of suffering not to lament the enduring pain of the world, but to celebrate the resilience of people and emphasise all that can be achieved by harnessing the pain and directing it towards the good fight.
A Younger Theatre, for whom I have written for two years, is now going on a break for the foreseeable future. Even as my life has changed and my career has developed, I have loved working with AYT due to the chance to discover the most creatively exciting theatre taking place in London, which I would never otherwise think to attend. If this is the end, then, I am glad then that I can end on such a high – experiencing beautiful, multimedia artwork in a corner of London miles from where I live. The creative achievement here is comparable to anything taking place in some stuffy West End theatre.
Damage Control is showing at the Riverside Studios until 31 October. For more information, see the Riverside Studios website.