Southwark Secrets

Written for the London Theatre Blog, 31 January 2009

London Bridge is a bit of a theatrical Narnia. Discreet entrances, discoverable only by chance or by word of mouth, lead straight to the underground London of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere – dark and improbably huge brick caverns and tunnels colonised, equally improbably, by theatre people. One such space is the Shunt Vaults; another is the Southwark Playhouse.

The Playhouse have tapped into their venue’s natural mystique for their latest initiative, Southwark Playhouse Secrets. Actually, not much about the programme is secret – it’s timetabled in full on the website, and if you sign up to the Facebook group you’ll receive regular invitations to upcoming events. But couple the name with the location and you can believe you’ve discovered an exclusive theatrical underground – an irresistible and addictive feeling.

The Secrets themselves are short theatrical happenings that occur in and around the Playhouse at lunchtimes, in the evenings and late at night (allowing you to catch some bite-sized theatre in your lunch break, after work or following a couple of drinks at one of the nearby Tooley Street pubs). The Playhouse’s main theatre space is off-limits, so Secrets take place in the bar, storerooms or even the toilets. Admissions for some Secrets are limited for this reason, so book ahead.

Because anyone can apply to the Secrets curators (soon to be joined by London Theatre Blog’s own Jens Peters) for a slot, and because the programme is intended to keep rolling indefinitely, the work featured is diverse and often eccentric. There’s music, comedy, dance, improvisation, work in progress and more.

Take Scratch Interact. While a man in his vest and boxers wanders around the bar taking a mute interest in empty beer bottles and offering people half-sucked Werther’s Originals scored from Blanche Marvin, we’re encouraged to sign up for “intimate” interactive performances in the toilets.

In one toilet is a woman surrounded by objects: tickets stubs, a cigarette lighter. You enter alone, with no other audience members to hide behind. It turns out you’re breaking up with her; the objects are the debris of your relationship. The stub from your first movie date. Your lighter, from before you gave up.

You get one companion for the other toilet, but you’re shepherded into separate cubicles and then the lights go out. In the dark, people whisper to you both. One pleads for reassurance that everything will be all right. The other points out you have no idea who he is. He could be a bad person. Who gets which voice is pure pot luck.

Intrigued, I venture back a week later for Home, a physical theatre piece by Tangled Feet. Behind the bar is a storecupboard door; after Scratch Interact I’m primed for a performance in a cupboard, but past all the props and costumes is another door leading to an arched vault twice as big as the Playhouse’s main theatre. It’s dark and chilly, there’s plaintive string music coming from somewhere, and the company’s torch beams only serve to accentuate the spooky vastness of the place.

What follows is by turns sinister, sweet, playful and almost spiritual. Eight performers, eight torches and eight rustly, plasticky one-man children’s easy-up tents make, lose, regain, break and mourn their homes in the vault through dance, silhouette play and the endearingly daft practice of rolling around the floor while still inside a tent.

Two Secrets can’t give a full picture of the programme, but they can begin to highlight some of the common threads tying the different pieces together. The most striking is the companies’ understanding of and enthusiastic engagement with the unconventional performance spaces on offer.

There’s also a strong sense of community building in the Playhouse bar. I ran into several of the same people on both my visits, a few of whom were future Secrets slot holders themselves. Community and word of mouth power the theatre industry, and the Southwark Playhouse Secrets seem to be effortlessly generating both. Long may they continue.

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