Arcola Theatre: Out with a Blast!

Alicia Davies as Moll and Morgan Deare as Harry in The Cradle Will Rock

The Arcola Theatre have recently staged their final productions at their old home on Arcola Street. Based there for the past decade, the owner of the site has decided it’s time for some more luxury apartments in the area and consequently the theatre have found a new home on Ashwin Street, closer to Dalston Junction station. With fundraising still ongoing – including high profile involvement from artists Anthony Gormley and Katherine Hamnett – they are making steady progress to raising what they need to get started in the new venue (I would urge anyone keen on local arts to please make a contribution to the Arcola Appeal – they really are a cultural gem in the neighbourhood!!)

As a Haggerston resident I’ve been visiting the Arcola sporadically over the past years, so when I heard they were moving I felt a pang of nostalgia for the old spot – the visually intrusive columns in the theatre space, the slightly cold foyer/bar area, the smaller studio spaces ‘out and around the back’, noises from the surrounding streets, effectively all
the ingredients that grounds fringe theatre. So I decided to loyally attend their last shows to see the statement they wanted to make before moving to new premises.

The first of the last that I visited, blue/orange by Joe Penhall, was a real treat of intimate theatre. Thematically rich and centred on a psychiatric ward’s patient/intermediate doctor/hospital superior relationship, it was showered with awards when originally staged at the National Theatre. The cast for the Arcola production consisted of three female characters rather than the original play text’s three male. This shift from ‘alpha male’ focus didn’t in any way lessen the dramatic tension between the characters, carried off by strong performances by all three, with Esther Hall (the intermediate doctor, Emily) particularly versatile, wedged between the manipulative manoeuvres of the patient and the power hunger of her hospital superior.

What was also really impressive about blue/orange was the set – the structural column that can be a hindrance to plays in this space was used to define the space between hospital administration and that for doctor-patient intimacy. The lighting was delicately atmospheric but most poignant were the elongated window sections separating stage and audience.

Were we watching them or were they watching us? Was it right to be privy to these private doctor patient discussions and institutional power battles? Is it safer in there or outside? The set really encouraged the audience to consider these questions as the play progressed and gave an extra dimension to the play’s text.

For their ultimate show, The Cradle will Rock by Mark Blitzstein, I had to persuade myself to go along. Ordinarily I would sidestep a musical, as I find it often serves up diluted music and diluted theatre. But the context for this ‘musical’ is very different – written in 1930s US and influenced by Bertolt Brecht, it really is a voyage through corruption and a strong parable for our modern times. Within five minutes I had relinquished my anti-musical sentiment and was settling in to enjoy the show.

Sat next to the solo piano accompaniment to the large cast (excellently played by Bob Broad, who also conducted when required), it quickly became apparent to me that this was a more than competent group of vocalists, indeed a few cameos (Josie Benson’s incredible voice) wouldn’t have been out of place in the opera house. Again the theatre used its natural assets to the fore – that column, again, sat prominently as part of the industrial ‘Steeltown’ setting of the play. The space captured the gritty setting of the town with minimal props in place for the courthouse scene. Moving swiftly from prostitution to bribery, through false moralising to exploitation, one could sense why this piece – staged at the cusp of today’s austere and potentially bleak politico-ideological times ahead – was chosen to bid farewell to this space. And as the entire cast, characters of both good and
bad complexion, faced the audience for the finale to sing in unison:

When you can’t climb down
And when you can’t say no
When the wind blows
The cradle will ROCK!

– it felt as if one might emerge from the theatre into the midst of the student protests. It was utterly rousing and right on the money!

With their move to the Colourworks building on Ashwin Street on the back of these productions, the Arcola are really moving with the wind in their sails. There will be a lot that will certainly be missed from the old space of the Arcola, it has been a faithful servant to fringe theatre in a culturally vibrant part of the city. But with the modern space on Ashwin Street – free from visual intrusion and with improved facilities and communal areas – there
is unquestionably much to look forward to.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Arcola over its lifetime has been its
commitment to environmental sustainability, unique, I believe, to all London theatres. The designs for the new space show an energy incubator, solar panels and even a biomass boiler. Alongside this the theatre has been hosting bi-monthly Green Sundays to showcase environmental issues addressed through film, music, theatre, poetry and discussion.

There is just one final element of their environmental assessment that they seem to have overlooked in their analysis: if they can maintain the level of energy from the last shows at Arcola Street in their new venue, they should already be able to provide most of the power for their new premises for well into 2011.

About Robert Cotter

Is a freelance writer based in Hackney.

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