Theatre Souk

Our critics rating: 
Tuesday, 21 September, 2010
Review by: 
Peter Brown

Theatre is certainly changing. It may not be changing much in the traditional kind of theatres in the West End, but fringe and small-scale producers are pushing the frontiers forward with gutsy, innovative zeal and not a little in the way of panache. Of course, the boundaries in theatre have been moving for some time. I've seen a few productions at Battersea Arts Centre where I've been as much a part of the action as the actors themselves, and in one show, the audience were the actors. And last year I trekked out to the deepest reaches of Hornsea to a show that took place in a disused town hall, and required one to get directions round the venue via an MP3 player. This kind of site specific theatre is generally intriguing, and often inspiring as is certainly the case here.

'Theatre Souk' takes place in a disused office block just off Oxford Street in the West End. It's a relatively small building, but it's got several floors, each with corridors and offices which provide the performance spaces. The concept is by Theatre Delicatessen who've organised the space and marketing, and have handed over the rooms to aspiring young companies to do their own thing. The idea is that you pay a £7 entrance fee, and then you pay extra – a couple of pounds seems the average – to see the individual performances. It's a neat idea, apparently spawned by the recession and cuts in arts funding.

On the ground floor there's a cabaret bar with different performers playing each night, and on the other floors are various plays and interactive experiences. For example, there's a fortune teller, a man who bargains with you to remove hair from various parts of his body, a casino and an aerial performance – 'Between Life and Nowhere' – which takes place in the main stairwell.

While my colleague had her fortune told, I sauntered into an atmospherically dingy casino armed with a couple of chips. However, I had to leave before discovering what was happening as another show 'Curving Road' was about to begin. This takes place in not one but two identical hotel bedrooms. Hotel employees check you in, and then show you to the rooms. The rooms are side-by-side and each has a guest and a maid who perform the play simultaneously. The humorous hotel employees busy themselves looking after the guests, and invite you to take seats inside the bedroom. I watched from outside where I found it a little hard to hear what was happening. So, I moved on to the next room and another play.

'Uzbkistan Airways' by Tom Ellen and directed by Juliane von Sivers is based on a great idea. Since surprise is a key feature of this show, I won't spoil it for you by giving too much of the plot away. When you enter the office in which the show takes place, a man in his twenties is reclining on a beach. As you wait for the show to start, you notice that there are small rolls of carpet around the edge of the set, and the fluffy clouds which hang from the ceiling are made of foam, extracted perhaps from chairs. And those are the clues that will help you unravel the story of Max, a depressed office worker who decides to take extreme action. Though it's thoughtfully directed and played, the promise encapsulated in the idea wasn't realised in the later stages, leading to a rather disappointing ending.

In the stairwell I caught Natural Shocks' 15 minute performance entitled 'Between Life and Nowhere' or 'The Stairwell'. Catherine Cusack and Alex Palmer dangle precariously on ropes down the middle of the stairwell, in a semi-humorous fantasy that is intimately intriguing and imaginative. There's no dialogue apart from a few unintelligible grunts, but sound effects of heartbeats and some eerie music are enough to set the atmosphere, while we look on pretty-much amazed.

There's much in 'Theatre Souk' which feels like circus, even if there's not much canvass in sight. And you may feel the need to visit on more than one occasion because there's a lot going on. The performances are mostly the kind that you can dip in and out of, and if you can't always see or hear everything that's happening, you can always repeat a performance and get a better seat, or position. That makes some sort of sense, because this is very much theatre for the YouTube generation – you dip into something for a couple of minutes, move on and see what else there is available, returning to experience more as the fancy takes you.

Theatre Delicatessen have done a great job in the organisational department and getting the right kind of balance in the productions. My only quibble was that it would have been handy to have some schedules in the programme so we knew what was going on when. But exploration and discovery are very much a part of the appeal with this kind of event, so you may need to be flexible, bow to the conceptual framework and just enjoy it. With more than enough variety to meet the needs of everyone, it's innovative fun, and a fascinating night out.


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