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North West is a digital audio piece created by Anna Morrissey which collates verbatim interviews of former staff and students from North Westminster Community School. Morrissey, herself a former pupil of the school, was inspired by ‘an instinct to bear witness’ to create the piece, which documents stories about life at the school, the gradual gentrification of the surrounding area, and the eventual demolition of the site. The production was selected as part of Camden People’s Theatre’s Outside The Box commission, to develop projects which explore what ‘live performance’ can be at a time of closed theatres, and can be experienced as an in-person audio walk or an at-home video animation.
The piece has been put together very thoughtfully and skillfully. Tristan Kajanus’ sound design impressively weaves together the different narrators’ voices so that one person’s thought flows fluidly into that of another, for the ultimate storytelling experience. Atmospheric sounds further immerse the audience into the stories being told, such as coughing as former students discuss their experiences of smoking on site, and the beeping between locations is cleverly reminiscent of the ‘pips’ signalling the gaps between classes.
Animated captions by Dan Denton provide additional clarity, with a change of colour indicating a different speaker, and entertainment, with certain sighs, noises, and words presented in capitals or particularly elongated to an almost comedic effect. None of this production value detracts from the depth of the piece, however, and the interviewees’ stuttering and fractured thoughts remind the audience that these are very real, everyday people sharing their experiences.
The piece is, overall, a joyous one and spends a lot of time focusing on the sense of community that the school fostered. It is nostalgic to hear ex-students discuss their favourite habits and hang-out spots, and heart-warming to discover that the teachers loved it there too, making each other laugh every single day with the classroom stories they accumulated. Even when the level of violence is addressed, speaking of knives brought into school and prison-like turnstile-gates employed as a result, there are optimistic voices claiming that it was dark but not ‘depressing’, as they ‘learned a lot of life skills’.
The real villain of the piece is not the threat of danger, but the threat of gentrification and the very underhand way that the local residents were forced out of their own area. Whilst there is still some balance of opinion presented regarding the school’s destruction, with one interviewee stating ‘Yeah, get rid of that!’, the overwhelming feeling is one of sadness and resentment. It is an emotional production packed with powerful moments, as one voice reflects that ‘there was a community there, it was very run down, it was not easy … but they were real, local people … all of the work that’s happened there now [has] just completely sucked the life out of everything … and all of that history is going.’
Whether you experience the walk in-person or watch from home, this piece will touch your heart; as is inevitable when hearing anyone discuss a topic so close to their own. Regardless of how you may feel about the school’s eventual demise, North West is a fantastic exploration into secondary-school culture, the excitement of youth, and the value of community.
North West is available online until 23 May 2021. For more information and tickets, see Camden People’s Theatre online.