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Hussey's Riot: 'Scratch! my BAC'

The first and most obvious star of the Scratch new theatre festival is the building. Where have they been hiding the Battersea Arts Centre? Well Battersea obviously but very efficiently, I had never once heard of the place until I tiptoed up its steps last Wednesday night.

I had been promised new and engaging creativity, Scratch puts on deliberately informal and experimental theatre which I certainly got but on the way there I was struggling.

Lavender Hill is not a pretty or interesting area. En route I passed all it's dubious 'delights': the run down police station, the grim chain pubs and hordes of over highlighted, orange faced office girls on their commute home. Behold the female of a particular subspecies, the psuedo-Sloanes that flock to 'Claaam' ; big haired and dire they are reason enough never to drift South of the river. More shame me though because when I finally entered the building, a handsome ram shackle thing with period facade, I uncovered a treat.

Somewhat early I picked up my tickets and wandered. The BAC has a cavernous, vaulted foyer where a grand marble staircase swirls up into dark corridors. To kill time I went to investigate and found a warren of atmospheric rooms. There was pin drop silence and the feel of getting locked in school after hours. I discovered a rotunda covered by a frosted dome, a little salon with an iron fireplace and even a huge, creepy assembly hall. For a moment I stepped in- behind the duffle coated piano, behind the thousand wooden chairs. They were empty, facing the empty stage.

After my little adventure I walked back into the foyer and joined the big group heading into the first performance. Scratch puts on ten minute shows and uses the marvellous building to its full, shuffling the audience round into different rooms to keep the night fresh, giving you a sense of a journey. It works. The shows were raw but engaging, all based on the loose theme 'Family'.

First we gathered in a darkened room and members of the audience were called into a piece to represent the 28 women of the writer's family. So far, so so but the second show really caught the eye. Performed by a group called 'The Kings of England' a cadaverous man with milk bottle specs stood alone in a spotlight, calling us into a circle around him. Here was the young writer, Neil Simon Bowes. He was all but naked, wearing only a very tight, very stripy pair of boxers.

Frankly he was a sight. Stick thin, coal shaft white, a living Lowry from some unwise erotic phase and let's not forget the boxers. Who could? His groin was sad distraction, draped as it was in the gold and maroon of Bradford FC.

Bowes should have looked bizarre yet somehow didn't, there was an intensity in his gaze and after looking us all in the eye he performed a touching piece on his father's stroke and recovery. Indeed he was joined on stage by his real father in a similar get up (or lack of it) and what should have been ridiculous was fascinating. It ended with the older man singing an entrancing song over the his son's picked guitar.

After that a Scratch assistant hurled a chalk notice board in the air. 'Follow Me' it said. We were led into the foyer where two teenage girls took the grand staircase for their stage, performing a sinuous dance. After we moved into yet another room lit with a bald light bulb. Animal ears on Alice bands were handed out to one and all and we sat on the floor like school kids (ears on) for a jolly three hander. We were the pack, and the players one by one read out reasons why they should not be eaten by us. Strange but fun.

Next came the second eyecatcher. For this we were ushered into that room I had discovered earlier, the little salon with the iron fireplace. Here was a performance by a team called Pondlife. A man stood head down against the wall as we shuffled in. When the door was closed he paused and then hit the lights, crouching behind a clothes horse in the corner. We waited in the dark. The door opened,the lights went on, a second man entered and a cockney 'Oooiiiii oiiii!' exploded from the corner.

A cockney explosion is a good term for the writer/performer behind the clothes horse, Mike Kenward. The piece was a two hander with a serious point to make about class mobility and what it does to family but it was Kenward's role that was central. Out he came circling his counter part (essentially a human prop)like a maniac. He knuckled along the table, slapped his knee, talking and telling stories at a hundred miles an hour.

The other man, mostly lineless, simply went about his business (making a cup of tea, styling his hair) never hearing this ebullient ghost.

Kenward it appeared was playing the family the silent counterpart was leaving behind, upwardly mobile and a graduate, he could no longer hear them. As the deaf man was preparing to leave Kenward's tone changed. The knee slapping clown evaporated and he became a more wistful spectre, trying to tell his unhearing subject how much he was missed.

Another charismatic piece with both extroversion and emotional subtlety, Kenward's performance, indeed the whole night, had charming energy. The lights dimmed once more. The final, very watchable skit was over and with it my excellent time at Scratch.

Scratch runs until October 4th. A charming platform for the new Hussey recommends it.


Pondlife performers Mike Kenward and Tom Bird