Published in the Evening Standard August 16, 2021
There’s a new pop-up coming to Brixton – and it’s not a trend-setting bar or foodie destination, but a theatre. Roundabout, an in-the-round venue run by theatre company Paines Plough, will sprout in Slade Gardens this month, offering ten days of live performance: four new plays performed in rep, plus cabaret, comedy and community workshops.
Roundabout has always tried to take theatre to the people – popping up in neighbourhoods, towns, or cities where there might not be so much arts provision on the doorstep. Although it’s the first time Roundabout has visited Brixton, the venue tours annually; its 2021 season already kicked off in Coventry as part of the City of Culture celebrations, where the portable 168-seater theatre took up residency on a tennis court. Future destinations include Salford, Ramsgate and Doncaster.
In this still-fraught era for theatre, bringing work directly to a community feels more important than ever.
“The intention is to eliminate barriers for people who don’t necessarily feel like they want to go into a [theatre] building or don’t think that building is for them,” says Katie Posner, joint artistic director of Paines Plough with Charlotte Bennett.
In each location they visit, Paines Plough has a steering group of local people. “How we truly welcome people is absolutely bespoke – it’s really different in different places,” says Posner. “We start conversations with the community long before we arrive. The notion that ‘if you land there they will come’ is arrogant, and it’s not inclusive – we have to work hard, and we want to work harder.”
But Posner’s sense is that this really is the right moment for hyper-local theatre. “We’ve all had to exist in a local state, haven’t we? We’ve all invested in where we live.”
Playwright and director Chinonyerem Odimba, whose new musical Black Love is one of the Roundabout shows, thinks making culture much more available and accessible is something that the whole of British theatre needs to get better at.
“We really need to make that a big focus, moving forward,” she suggests. “And more importantly, we shouldn’t leave it to certain organisations to do that work. The thing that’s been set up is that if you are a company working with marginalised communities, then it’s your imperative to do that work – actually, we should be asking every funded organisation to.”
For all they want to attract new audiences, Paines Plough is first and foremost a new writing company – and Posner insists programming starts by listening to what playwrights want to write about. The result is a varied programme, where visitors can catch – over one evening, or the course of a weekend – Odimba’s musical about a relationship between siblings, followed by a coming-of-age story set in Coventry by Frankie Meredith; can see the same cast tackle Chris Bush’s lesbian love story Hungry, and Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s family show, Really Big and Really Loud.
2021’s cohort were meant to have their shows on last summer – and while the delay wasn’t what anyone would have hoped for, the extra time has helped shape their output. For Odimba, the death of George Floyd, and subsequent global protests, formed an unignorable event, and she updated the action of Black Love so that it unfolds during that time of upheaval.
Black Love looks at “the intensity and the beauty of familial love relationships, and how sometimes – certainly in terms of black lives – we don’t get to see that love.” While there is trauma in her show, she wanted to make sure there was also plenty of joy, and “some ridiculously catchy music!” Expect a R&B-soaked soundtrack, with music from Ben and Max Ringham.
A musical is not what you usually expect to see in a bijou, in-the-round theatre – but that was all part of the appeal for her. “I don’t know how often musicals are done with that level of intimacy,” she says, hoping it will help draw the audiences in.
For Chris Bush, having written several main-house and large-scale community productions recently, the invitation to write for Roundabout provided a chance to get back to the essence of theatre. A long-term fan of the space – she remembers being “blown away by the simple theatricality” of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs and Every Brilliant Thing there – Bush also wanted to make the most of Roundabout’s intimacy.
A virtually set-less two-hander, Hungry is “about food, class and grief – but in a way it’s a love story told through food,” she says. “Thematically, it’s do with consumption, but at the heart it’s two characters, Lori and Bex, a chef and a waitress. Everything is held within the dynamic between the two characters, which is a nice place to start writing from. You really focus on craft, I suppose.”
While she hopes the themes resonate wherever it’s performed, Hungry may feel particularly tart in Brixton: the play explores the sort of gentrification the neighbourhood has seen in recent years, and asks “what it means to set up your bougie aspirational restaurant” in such a place, Bush explains.
Another thing that makes Roundabout unusual is its casting: one cast is shared across the productions. This makes choosing actors something of a 3D jigsaw puzzle – perhaps more so than ever, this year.
Really Big and Really Loud needed adults who could play children; Black Love needed black actors who could belt out a tune. The knock-on effect was that Hungry would be performed by a black woman and a white woman. “It made my show – in a way that is absolutely all to the good – have a racial dynamic,” Bush acknowledges, which necessitated some re-writing – something she was keen to do in response to the casting. “Pretending that race doesn’t exist in that relationship would be a bit of a cop-out; I think we’ve moved past being colourblind.”
Sharing a cast can also prove brain-bending when rehearsing all the shows at once, for both the cast and for Posner as director – yet everyone I speak to seems to think there are serious benefits too. Resonances may ripple across shows; actors really get to show off their range.
“And I think audiences love it,” says Posner. “Seeing two different pieces of work with the same cast feels good – it feels electric. And it means we can do more plays in a shorter time!”
Roundabout is at Slade Gardens, 19-29 August (painesplough.com)