"Read All About It"Review
If anyone remembers my article of July 10th in which I looked forward to the Belgrade Theatre's takeover of the former "Coventry Evening Telegraph" building for two shows, "City Final" & "Retold" as part of their "Read All About It" event, then they'll have noted how much I was looking forward to it.
I was not disappointed: it exceeded even my high expectations. Although normally each piece plays separately, I was fortunate to be invited to back to back performances of both yesterday evening.
I had, during previous visits to the CET Popup, heard strains of the most beautiful music float through the building. I had not, at the time realised that this was leading local musician Lucy Anne Sale creating brand new music for "Retold", a dance performance by the inspiring Mercurial Dance company.
Both shows made really creative & highly effective use of the CET space & complemented the narratives they were communicating with interaction with the environment. "Retold" was performed in the foyer: but not really on the floor. The impressive long counter was the pivot of their show & the dancers used it to perform upon, across and over with panache. At this point, I should also like to pay tribute to their physical control as well as athleticism & creativity. The audience was necessarily seated close to & among the action & from the first, swirling feet came extremely close to my face: but once I realised that I was in no danger, I appreciated their skills: and it must be taken into account that although much was rehearsed, so much movement was improvised: they really did own the space. Quite a few leaps ended in landings very close to Lucy Anne Sale too but she never batted an eyelid: she obviously had full faith in them.
The various "City Final" scenarios acted by groups (mainly youth performers) from the Belgrade Community Company also made excellent use of the building. The Stygian & wet lower print hall space fitted in ideally as a setting for the Keresley Miners' Strike picket line: a dark, post industrial landscape. Even more directly impactful on me was the section on deaths in police custody: this took place in very cramped spaces & was truly frightening to walk into & be suddenly ordered about & abused by young actors playing police officers. Equally, having been crammed into a small "living room" to witness at close quarters the distress of a bereaved family, when things turned tense, being ordered out was pretty traumatic.
The basis of "Retold" was a dance creation which captured the sense & culture of provincial newspapers: partly pre-prepared, it nevertheless contained much improvised dance (and consequently music) based on audience input (their stories about life in Coventry) before resolving itself through a series of classified ad enactments (culminating extremely movingly with obituaries) into a manifesto for the continued need for local print journalism. In fact although the dancers were superb at dancing ( I am no expert on dance performance though I was exhilarated by their exuberant and joyous performances), they also spoke a great deal: in performance dialogue, directly to the audience & individually as they toured the foyer earlier to collect stories for informing the improvisations.
"City Final" was pretty complex: held together by a central narrative which centred on challenging the complacency that Lord Iliffe's "Coventry Evening Telegraph" made no false moves, the audience in groups was shepherded around the premises by cast members encountering set pieces which reflected issues which the paper may not have covered effectively: racial violence & intolerance, police behaviours, the miners' strike, refugee stories, the 1994 Coventry Airport crash etc, again culminating in the cavernous print hall this time in a fabulous ensemble scene which was very moving.
The mainly young actors who performed this part were really excellent and although to be honest it was "Retold" which really required a "Hot Music Live" review being the musical part, it was a joyful surprise when one of the performers on the Keresley picket line part of "City Final" broke into a moving acapella version of the Style Council's "A Stone's Throw".
Which leads me neatly back to the main musical star of the whole: Lucy Anne Sale. Her role was totally central to "Retold": the music was composed by her in the building (as I heard) in order to more perfectly echo its spirits and she performed throughout: on keyboards at times, at others on guitar or flute & often on cajon with which her playing drove the dancers onwards. Some music was incidental but there were also traditionally formed songs. Her opener must have been a real challenge to write: a sort of travelogue of Coventry encompassing areas and places (nice to hear "Tiffany's" namechecked) but I guess the potential for something lyrically awkward was huge: something she transcended with aplomb. Be great if this ever got released! The other song which I really appreciated was part of the obituary section: a really tender & haunting one as you'd expect.
The "City of Culture" idea has a lot of potential. I am not clear at the moment (and not sure how many people are) of what proportion of emphasis and funds will be on buying in expensive external content providers & how much on nurturing local creativity. May I be bold & make a few points?
- The CET Popup venue has been one if not the most outstanding cultural phenomena of the past year: were this to move onto the "Elephant" building, its potential to be the hub for community arts up to 2021, during 2021 & beyond is enormously powerful
- The Belgrade has for many many years been at the forefront of both cutting edge locally generated drama and cultivating local talent: as amply demonstrated in "City Final": this again could offer so much to a City of Culture and provide a sustainable artistic legacy
- If you require partners, artists such as Lucy Anne Sale & Mercurial provide locally based & linked input which truly understands & empathises with the community
- Finally, this type of cross media event where music & drama happily co-exist offers another very rich model.
"City Final" & "Retold" play until Saturday 14th July. For tickets go to http://www.belgrade.co.uk/season/read-all-about-it
Hats off to everyone involved in the conception, creation & execution of these splendid shows.