Sampled at The Junction, Day 1: This is just to say, How To Be A Leader, Dreams of a House High on a Hill and Death Drive.
The Junction is a lovely space, in rather inauspicious surroundings: in the looming shadow of a giant cinema/bowling alley/fast food restaurant complex on one side, the ugliest Travelodge in the world (fact) on the other, in South Cambridge, far from the stunning gentility of the colleges. However, we all know that neither books nor theatres should be judged by their covers: The Junction is a treasure trove of nooks, studios and theatre spaces allowing its annual mini-festival Sampled to offer something for everyone. With bunting, free jelly babies and cheap coffee, I am sold before I see any shows…
Hannah Jane Walker’s This is just to say is an intimate theatrical conversation about what it means to say “sorry”, and why we have a habit of apologising for other people’s mistakes: how often have you said “oh, sorry!” to the person who trod on your toes or let a door swing shut into you? Walker combines her poems with an engaging conversational style, and some gentle audience participation. When my companion and I strolled up to the entrance we are greeted with cups of squash and a cheery request to fill in a name sticker: audience participation is not usually my cup of tea, and I squirm at the thought of being called on, especially if the actor knows my name. But, Walker is so charming and friendly that I decided to be brave, scrawl my name (illegibly – ha!) and take a seat in The Junction’s meeting room. The show is clever without being smug, and Walker is skilled at both performing, chatting, and putting people at ease. I am not convinced that her poems are strong enough to carry an hour’s show, but Walker is so engaging that the potential weakness of the poems (they become a little same-y after a while) becomes immaterial. She is at her best when she is philosophising about the nature of apology, forgiveness and linguistics, which she does with articulacy and wit. Some of the over-sharing about ex-boyfriends gets a little uncomfortable in such a small space – but perhaps I am just a wuss. The audience was receptive to Walker’s charms, and she instigated a real sense of camaraderie in the 13-strong audience.
Next, fortified with a jelly baby or two, we snuck into Tim Clare’s first show of that day, How To Be A Leader. A mix of stand-up comedy, monologue and sudden shouting, Clare’s performance was great. His seven rules of leadership are a mock how-to guide to becoming a dictator: the key seems to be careful guarding of resources (Frazzles); each citizen receives (Frazzles) according to their need; don’t let ‘em see you bleed (even if you’ve been shot); and, um, get a Spell-Lady to make you a magic hat. Simple, huh? Well, Clare’s bizarre logic and manic persona make the hour fly by. He is off-beat and hilarious, with moments of real insight thrown in here and there with a very light touch. We cover feminism, the real qualities of a good leader, how dictatorships are formed and sustained, and why neither Kim Jong-Il not Sarah Palin is a good role model. Clare ends with an utterly brilliant rap in the voice of various female leaders, to redress the balance a little after the rest of the show focused on male “assholes”. Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I, Mother Theresa (who has a filthy mouth in Clare’s somewhat warped imaginations), are given a voice, in Clare’s inimitable style. His way with words is almost on par with the incomparable Tim Minchin, and Clare possesses a similar acerbic wit offset with a twinkly-eyed grin.
A bizarre 20-minutes followed, watching Made In China’s Dreams of a House High on a Hill. I am still not sure if it was theatrical genius or pretentious twaddle. I am inclined to come down somewhere between the two. It is undeniable that this short piece cast some kind of spell over the assembled company; the audience were entranced, even after the lights came up there was silence. It was a shame that the lone female performer felt the need to say “Um, that’s it” after a minute or two, but she was sitting half-naked in a bath of milk, so it it understandable that she wanted to get out! The story was mesmerising but strange, a mixture of what could have been hallucinations, drug trips, mental illness. It was left frustratingly ambiguous, hence why I am unsure whether we witnessed genius or gibberish. The silent audience seemed confused at the end, and Made In China’s show left me somewhat confused. The script was not strong enough to bear the repetition, and although it effectively created an aura of mystery, it then tried to imbue the performance with more weight than it could take: by remaining so reticent with facts or truths it became impossible to connect with the narrative. We were left puzzled – indeed, the evaluation form asked us to fill in what we thought the play was about. The piece is a work in progress, so there is definite room for improvement, and I hope that the team is brave enough to make some decisions about the story. The script could do with a re-write to sharpen it up a bit, and some background might be nice, although I appreciate the delicacy of the narrative might not hold up under too much context.
Finally, we saw Tim Clare’s second show, Death Drive, a tragi-comic look at Clare’s depression and how he worked his way out of it through a combination of paternal determination, self esteem building, and the advice of a psychic horse. Clare has a nice line in self-deprecation and self-recrimination, balanced with humour and a healthy sense of self-awareness. The show covers difficult subjects (mental illness, suicide, father-son relationships) with a lightness of touch that belies the hard work that Clare has clearly put in to delving into his own psyche and sharing the results with his audience. It is difficult to watch Clare put himself through remembering his torment, albeit in a humourous way, but one leaves with a huge respect for both his bravery and his craft.
Day 1 was a delightful mix of shows, with a festive feel to The Junction.
I am looking forward to day 2.
The Sampled Festival is a weekend of events held at the Junction Theatre in Cambridge exploring new contemporary theatre. For more information see the full line up on the website here.
NB – I didn’t make it to day 2 as I cracked a disc in my back and couldn’t move. I am sure it was great!