Saturday, 13 November 2010

Belt Up: Vaults Ahead of the Pack

A dalliance with the Edinburgh Fringe darlings at Southwark Playhouse

The echoing, vault-like (and sometimes bloody freezing) spaces at Southwark Playhouse are a good match for Belt Up theatre company. Accustomed to the battered, abandoned space at C-venues in Edinburgh that has been christened the Squat by fond theatremakers, it must seem like a home from home (from home).

For a second year running they are staging something at the theatre tucked around the corner from London Bridge tube station; last year they brought two, and this time they're presenting a third. Will it make a hat-trick of innovative theatre?

At this moment in time, I can't pass comment, seeing only two of the three shows, Lorca Is Dead: Or a Brief History of Surrealism, and Quasimodo last night. Kicking off with the first, Lorca has all the hallmarks of a Belt Up classic: the guided audience input, mad bursts of activity hot on the heels of spotlighted pinnacles of tension and grief, which are themselves undermined with blasts of dark humour descended from Python-esque surrealism.

Scattered amongst the small tables and footstools in the shabby-chic bar at the Playhouse, the Company introduce themselves to us as Salvador Dali, his wife Gala, Andre Breton, Rene Magritte, a host of Surrealist figures playing with the conventions of time and place. Progressing with the audience through to Breton's huge living room, they begin to act out the death of their companion Federico Garcia Lorca: play within a play within a play, and probably within another play, is exactly how actor-playwright Dominic J. Allen likes it, as I discovered when I interviewed him about the show at York Theatre Royal earlier this Summer.

Populated with familiar characters from art and literary history, Lorca is an intriguing, invigorating and irreverent production that surprises with some brilliant lines on what it is to love, and to be human: a Belt Up show with substance as well as distinctive style.

Viewing Quasimodo later the same evening, perhaps it was too late in the night, too soon after a long week at work, to fully appreciate. A subterranean tale (via Victor Hugo, as its posters parenthesise) Quasimodo is work of a different consistency and pace.

A compact cast of four to Lorca's eight, a chillier space with clusters of candles and whispering masked creatures, we are in neo-Gothic territory, heightened language and exaggerated characterisation almost taking its cue from Commedia dell'Arte. The Hunchback of Notre Dame's plot is familiar to most, gypsy Esmerelda bewitching virtually every man in Paris with her beauty, and crucially, her kindness.

Slices of the dialogue are a shade hyper-theatrical, and when the oft-used line, "I've loved you since I first saw you," pops up, it's usually time to head for a redraft. Nevertheless, it's structurally a very strong adaptation of Hugo's novel from one of Belt Up's founders Jethro Compton, with stacks of atmosphere, and fine turns from all concerned.

The word 'ambitious' is perhaps the most disheartening any creative can read, with a ringing, patronising quality if delivered in the wrong way. I know exactly how it feels to be on the receiving end of that choice adjective. But Belt Up's ambition should be feted, and now that they are set to spend some time learning the ropes on some of York Theatre Royal's shows this year, they can use such experience to move in yet more enticing directions. Don't miss the beginnings of something special.

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