The Yard’s NOW ’15 festival plays a double bill each night, the acts changing with the weeks. The night’s more experienced second act mentors the fledgling first, and you get twice as much theatre for your buck.
It certainly felt like I’d hit the jackpot after the first hour or so. Emilia Weber and Claire Healey’s There They Carved A Space is a love song to public space, to London and to urban living. Positing themselves far upstage, Weber and Healey speak into standing mics. The back wall is bathed from floor to ceiling with projections of archive footage and their own artfully framed shots. Despite reading from scripts throughout, with delivery in want of variety, the content and narrative arc are captivating.
The script is a series of journal entries recording the piece’s composition, as the two women interview residents and film relevant architecture. Their encyclopaedic knowledge of local history – always expressed with weighty simplicity – exposes the show’s strong backbone. Taking us through an oral history of common ground in the UK and Ireland, then the Second World War and the Blitz, we arrive at an emergency need for social housing in the 1940s. Post-war sentiment attracts famous architects and sees award-winning buildings arise in landmark locations around the country: a socialist golden era where space and light are bountiful luxuries for all.
As London thrives through rejuvenation, community and safety are outmoded by aspiration. The projections turn to the same artists’ impressions, only now they are plans for expensive private properties. The images begin to be interlaced with footage of the people’s police force performing forced evictions to make way for progress. The culmination of this movement of gentrification is the Olympic Park, the stone’s throw of a protestor away from the Yard Theatre – 500 acres of open space that you probably passed and admired on your way from Stratford station. The measurable effect of There They Carved A Space is it all now seems more the ‘ire of a generation’ than ‘inspire a generation’.
The evening’s second show, My Champion Heartache by Odd Comic, is an absurdist piece that plays with our tradition of keeping pets. It begins with a large fur throw on stage; there are kissing sounds coming from within and soon hands poke out from all angles, beckoning us closer for a treat. The lights snap off, and now performers Dot Howard and Holly Bodmer are face to face with the audience, again beckoning us forwards as you would a dog in a way that is a little uncomfortable, but gets the first proper laugh of the show.
We continue for the next sixty minutes in a similar tone. Yet a reasonably sparse audience means that it becomes clear very quickly when a sketch overstays its welcome. The absurdist style leads more often to over-repetition rather than development of an idea. When Bodmer tells a plant sitting in a dog bowl to “stop it!” again and again, for example, the laughs eventually dry up.
That is not to say that there are no comic triumphs. Interviews with pet owners and elderly hospital patients temporarily removed from their pets are inserted into the piece throughout. After one audio insert about the joy of dog-owning comes a scene that sees both performers struggling to pick up dozens of ‘soiled’ dog waste bags, some of which contain balls that skitter around the stage of their own accord. In another scene, we are inspected like doggies in the window, and it turns out that one member of the audience has brought his new owners a ‘present’. Rather than the expected dead bird, this is a cardboard box. Bodmer and Howard open it, and begin to ask “Is that a…?”, completing the sentence with a stream of objects that tend into an infinity of absurdity. Both scenes were relived heartily by audience members in the bar afterwards.
Likewise, there are touching moments. The cameo from a live tortoise gets the evening’s biggest reaction, but a number of the audio inserts override any doubts you might have about the peculiarity of pet ownership. Even if there is little rational reason behind keeping an animal tame, and so much mockery to be had at the way humans and pets behave together, My Champion Heartache also highlights an emotional argument – and it’s a winner.
My Champion Heartache is playing at The Yard until 30 May. For more information and tickets, see The Yard website. Photo by Holly Rumble.