The Newham Plays


Note


Since 2012, James Kenworth has been writing a series of plays which are responsive to East London history, sites and communities. I had seen and enjoyed the first of these plays, When Chaplin Met Gandhi, at Kingsley Hall. Two years later, I met James socially and he mentioned that he was looking for a director for his adaptation of Animal Farm at Newham City Farm. I expressed an interest. Before the decade was out, I had directed three such shows.

The productions presented a number of logistical and artistic challenges. Each featured what we came to describe as a “mixed economy” casting model, with professional actors working with young people from local communities. Each was mounted with only two weeks rehearsal. Each was staged at a non-traditional venue. To meet these challenges, I developed a number of directorial solutions.

We wanted professional actors who were temperamentally right for the undertaking and were able to work quickly and imaginatively. We held group auditions. We asked the actors to prepare something at very short notice, perform it before the group, and then join in group improvisation. For example, the Revolution Farm auditions were very revealing. Actors were asked to not only come with an audition piece based on Animal Farm but also embody their idea of a farm animal. Those who read a passage from the book or a previous adaptation got rejected. Those who looked awkward, or silly, or unconvincing as animals were unsuitable. I threw curveballs , to ensure they weren’t prima donnas. We built three casts of actors who were absolute wonders to work with. Able to be mentors and inspirations for the young people. Who weren’t afraid of the challenges of the scripts, venues, or staging.

We were working with children (sometimes playing animals, rejecting twofold the sage advice). I had directed non-professional actors before in Maidstone prison, but never children. I was hugely blessed to find Connor Abbott whilst we were putting together the team for Revolution Farm. He was assistant director on all three productions. He made a huge contribution their success. Connor has a brilliant way with both youngsters and adults. He’s the best warm up director in the business. He can get anyone to focus at any time. He inspired the young people to give their best, both in terms of performance and you need this kind of support to mount this type of show. Likewise, we got in support from voice and movement coaches. This was a summer school as much as a production for the young people.

We had to make the productions suit the space. I reconnoitred the sites, discovering the production always already hiding there. My imagination saw the script in situ as I wandered. At first, the idea was to stage Revolution Farm in the large barn on the site. One look at the area around it, I knew that it had to be a promenade production. The spaces around the barn – outdoor classroom, table tennis table, a large field – ideally suited scenes in the script. With Alice in Canning Town, the fantastic structure at the centre of the adventure playground was Alice’s journey. The rabbit disappeared down a slide. Hatter freaked Alice by swinging the girl on a rope swing. The audience scaled the structure, every single one an Alice on a wonderland trip.

A Splotch of Red: Keir Hardie in West Ham toured libraries in Newham and played a few nights in a hall where Hardie spoke. We needed to enact the tale simply. Locations were created from wooden crates, signifying the labour of the workers. The crates show the cast as heirs of the voters of 1892, carrying the story back into the local spaces. Retelling and reliving the history, politics, and working-class culture of the area.

James Kenworth provided three lovely scripts. Each distils the essence of the story to speak to the east end today. Actors, young people, and audience all respond instantaneously to James’s writing. His scripts leave a lot of space for a director and team to invent and imagine.

We were blessed with two great producers on these projects, Stella on the first, Nayomi on the others. The young people were inspiring. Some developed from production to production. Georgina Ponge and Abubacarr Bah grew from playing tiny farm animals to substantial leads in Splotch and Alice. I’m sure that both will go on to great careers. Injustice if not…

Productions



Revolution Farm by James Kenworth (after Orwell)

Newham City Farm, 19-24 August, 2014
Cast: Nicola Alexis (Daddy Love), Andreas Angelis (Smoothy), Katie Arnstein (Lil’ Monster), Samuel Caseley (Hero), Kevin Kinson (Warrior), and young people of the Royal Docks Area
Directed by James Martin Charlton; assisted by Connor Abbott; designed by Ian Teague
Produced by Stella Odunlami for Community Links



A Splotch of Red: Keir Hardie in West Ham by James Kenworth

Tour of Newham Libraries and Community Links Hall, 22-28 August, 2016
Cast: Samuel Caseley (Keir Hardie), James Dallimore (Will Thorne), and young people of the Royal Docks Area
Directed by James Martin Charlton; assisted by Connor Abbott; designed by Maria Terry
Produced by Nayomi Roshini for Middlesex University



Alice in Canning Town by James Kenworth

Arc in the Park, Canning Town, 12-18 August, 2019
Cast: Amy Gallagher (Rabbit Rabbit), Ram Gupta (Zeberdee), Deborah Griffin (Ms Hatter), Rian Perle (Ali Handsome), Georgia Wall (Pandora), and young people of the Royal Docks Area
Directed by James Martin Charlton; assisted by Connor Abbott; designed by Amy Mitchell
Produced by Nayomi Roshini for Middlesex University








James Martin Charlton





James Martin Charlton





James Martin Charlton





James Martin Charlton
Media


Revolution Farm on Vimeo:


A Splotch of Red: Keir Hardie in West Ham on Vimeo:

Alice in Canning Town on Vimeo:

Press/Audience Reaction


Revolution Farm

"Instead of “Four legs good, two legs bad”, the animals are whipped up to chant “Four legs badass, two legs wasteman” in this terrifically powerful update – adapted by James Kenworth and directed by James Martin Charlton – of Orwell's timeless Soviet Union-inspired fable of revolutionary ideals betrayed by the crushing of its left wing and the rise of a a self-serving elite. The unique selling points of this version – which resounds with troubling echoes of our own predicament today in Britain – are not just the in-yer-face modernity of the language and attitudes, but the fact that it unfolds as a promenade performance in the precincts of a genuine inner-city farm... there's a weird cognitive dissonance between the enlightened trappings of the actual farm and the atrocities (purges registered as the crashing of bodies against the wooden walls of a shut barn) that are fictionally perpetrated upon it. Highly recommended." - Paul Taylor, The Independent

“Far out in DLR-land, in the wilderness of Urban Regeneration that is the new East-of-East End, Newham City Farm has been since 1977 a place where you can, refreshingly, look at cows and carthorses and rabbits and remind yourself that there is more to the messy-feathery-dungy business of life than high-rise banks and bland groomed city parks. As site-specific theatre goes, it couldn’t be a niftier place for director James Martin Charlton to put on an urban-gangland adaptation of Orwell…. t’s a promenade performance: you follow the animals round as, with considerable spirit, they enact the story in shed, field and open space, leaping onto a ping-pong table and erecting a fine wooden windmill for the industrial revolution led by the crafty pigs…. Dark it is, at times. But it follows, with correct intelligence, exactly the Orwellian line of political decline. A founding pig, idealistically, tries to educate the lower animals: the sharper swine disrupt the education, feed them exciting slogans and flatter them as heroes of the revolution. Gradually the rules change and those who question that are silenced, mocked, eventually accused of sabotage and called the Enemy Within. Power concentrates in the hands of the pig-elite. The dogs become an obedient, enforcing army. Repressive murder ensues, and is whitewashed… while enjoying the performance (it is a brisk 85 minutes) I have to say that the greatest pleasure was seeing those splendid, spiritedly performing Newham children getting an excellent political education about power, politics, and the need to keep asking questions. I hope a lot of children come to see it.” - Libby Purves, Theatre Cat

“A vibrant... really accessible production of a modern classic - a great way to introduce younger audiences to the works of Orwell and get them thinking about the structure of societies and the nature of government... Newham is an area not often synonymous with the arts but it was an inspired place to perform a play that considers the themes of power and corruption in society... It made great use of the space moving the audience from location to location for each of the different scenes and utilising the structures of the farm. A really clever device was locking the audience either inside or outside of the barn to and banging on the walls during the scenes of violence and revolution so that you could hear the screams and shouts and imagine the horrors of war." - Everything Theatre

"Director James Martin Charlton does well to pilot the show around the small farm spaces, including the picnic area, the barn, and a paddock, making good use within these spaces to separate characters to create distance and enmity between characters as well as closeness and intimacy." - Grumpy Gay Critic

"… the way Revolution Farm is staged allows the audience to move around, switching between three different locations (which is also handy for keeping warm), as we follow the animals around their farm – a real strength of the production as it moves us closer to the, “immersive theatre” end of the spectrum. This is used to great effect when the animals turn on the humans, branding us, “scum,” and confining us to the barn as they revolt, chanting and hitting the walls aggressively, with our imaginations left to rampage... gritty, urban and unique, the kind of paradox that Orwell himself might have been proud of." - Ginger Hibiscus

"A brutal modernised version of a classic set on a working farm which packs the punches... I thought that, being a production which was both performed and seemed to be aimed at the younger viewer, that some of the more brutal elements of Orwell’s classic would be removed. My expectation was quickly reversed when the audience were removed from the barn and could only hear fighting, screaming and deaths. This is not the only brutal scene; we see a “rat”, one of the smaller members of the cast, being torn apart by his peers for food and another, having his neck broken after confessing to “crimes”." - Playhouse Pickings

A Splotch of Red: Keir Hardie in West Ham

“This show could not be more timely. Documenting Keir Hardie’s historic victory in West Ham South as an Independent candidate in the 1892 general election, it takes place a mile or so near to the Romford Road, where Jeremy Corbyn secretly addressed an electrifying rally. Both paid tribute to the struggles of London’s East End, where trade unionists such as Ben Tillett, John Burns and Annie Besant won major disputes for worker’s rights in the late 19th century. But Hardie refused to be stuck in the past, as does Corbyn now. A Splotch of Red by Jim Kenworth imagines Hardie (Samuel Caseley) and Will Thorne (James Dallimore) brought into the 21st century to find that the Red Flag and ideas of class consciousness are not as prevalent as they once were. Yet they soon find that low wages and poor employment conditions very much are and set about convincing the local workers to take a stand. Through the story of Hardie’s election battle against Major Banes we are given a compressed history of the labour movement in the area and the birth of the Labour Party. A buoyant bunch of young actors from the local area bring great energy to the tale of the “Major v the Miner,” reminding the audience of exactly where much debated “Labour values” really lie. It was difficult to leave not feeling inspired by this tale of grassroots socialism. Using just a few wooden crates in a stripped-back space, this agit prop-style production directed by James Martin Charlton is precisely what community theatre is all about. Performed in local libraries, with local performers passing on local history to the local community, it’s touring at a time when over 100 council libraries have been shut in the last year alone. A Splotch of Red is a fitting reminder of why they were created in the first place — and their continued importance as a hub for community learning.” – Morning Star

“The staging is done very well, with both sides of the audience getting a good view of proceedings. I very much appreciated the palpable hope and optimism of this piece of theatre, which was qualified by a number of valid misgivings about how much impact a person can make. This play does well to highlight that certain social issues are as pertinent now as they were when Keir Hardie was at the height of his political influence. Even if members of the socialist Fabian Society would probably end up feeling less welcome than members of the Conservative Party, this is nonetheless an absorbing and passionate play about an absorbing and passionate man." – LondonTheatre1

Alice in Canning Town

"Set in a sprawling inclusive adventure playground in London’s East End, Alice in Canning Town is the fourth in a quartet written by James Kenworth exploring the borough’s rich heritage and showing off the talent of its young people. It’s a storybook-style full-moon night. Instructed to leave reality at the park gate, the audience enters into a twisting, towering playground that lends itself perfectly to a site-responsive adaptation of Carroll’s classic... A pervading sense of nonsense justifies any arbitrary plot-dictating elements. After all, we left reality at the gate. The play allows its young cast to shine – each character has their moment. Particular favourites include MC Turtle’s heart-wrenching struggles to become a grime star (rapping nonsensically about mice in warehouses) and Georgia Wall’s uncanny hipster version of a Tweedle, named Pandora (whose frightened run is delightfully comical). Kenworth’s script draws laughter and warm smiles from the notably diverse, promenading audience. It’s true, Canning Town is a melting pot of multiculturalism, and this is fun for the whole family." - The Upcoming

Gallery


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