During the pandemic, one of my regular sources of online content was the work put out by Chickenshed the youth oriented theatre in north London which specialises in putting on inclusive performances involving dozens of young performers. And when I say “inclusive” I really mean inclusive and when I say “dozens” I actually mean hundreds. One of my theatre based resolutions was to get to see one of their legendary spring shows live and finally the opportunity arose – I have to say it was rather a unique experience.
The Chickenshed Spring Show has tended to focus on contemporary issues using a broad brush stroke collage approach and featuring concerns such as the environment (Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow – 2018), mental health (100% Chance Of Rain – 2019) or the refugee experience (Waiting For The ShipTo Sail – 2020). The run of the latter was abruptly terminated and there was, of course a total hiatus in 2021. This year’s offering is called The Washing Line and is actually a revamp of a piece from 2017, What’s Wrong With Jim. It’s a bold choice, for this concentrates on one particular set of occurrences that took place long before most of the 200 people involved were born. The piece examines the story of the infamous Jim Jones and the events in his Guyana enclave in the late 1970s in which over 900 people took part in a mass suicide following the murder of a US Congressman who had set out to investigate the cult’s activities.
The first sight that greets the audience entering the auditorium is a mass of human forms lying piled up indiscriminately like the laundry evoked in the title. It’s a sobering sight particularly at a time when we are daily hearing of mass deaths in Ukraine. Gradually the forms reanimate and the story of Jonestown, the People’s Temple and the cult’s grisly denouement are played out through a sequence of set pieces involving dialogue, song, dance, structured movement, visual media and even, in a thrilling finale to the first half, some circus skills. It looks and sounds at first like organised chaos and indeed it is – organised that is. The participants (drawn from the various educational courses offered by Chickenshed) are remarkably well drilled and thoroughly committed. Apparently each performer played the part of a person who really existed; they were given a name and they had to research that person and what happened to them. No wonder they were all completely immersed in their roles. The start of the second half is particularly uplifting as a full throated and gloriously energetic choir really raise the roof and there is some exceptional vocal work from Cara McInanny.
Although it’s the ensemble that really excites, woven through the big moments is the more intimate story of Jim Jones’s young followers Jessie (Lara Decaro) and Vernon (Alex Brennan) who bring a sense of an individual and personal tragedy to proceedings. Jones himself is played by a calculating Jonny Morton and his blindly devoted wife Marceline by Gemilla Shamruk. The pair shamelessly manipulate their followers and offer a commentary on gang recruitment and the cult of personality which means that we are not just looking at a slice of history.
The direction of Dave Carey and Bethany Hamlin’s reworked script is by Chickenshed alumnus Michael Bossisse who carefully balances the intimate with the epic and ensures that wherever you look there is something going on. The in the round configuration used really draws the onlookers into proceedings and you begin to understand how the insidious rhythms of life in the commune could begin to brainwash quite so many people. I particularly admired the lighting design of Andrew Caddies which really helped the piece to transcend the physical space. The only real mis-step I felt was at the end. The piece finished on a couple of minutes of archive newsreel of the events we had already seen. While this reinforced that what we had watched was a real story it merely seemed to duplicate what we had already witnessed and was therefore unnecessary. It almost undermines the power of the preceding story telling ; please trust the power of the cast’s abilities and ditch this if you can.
That aside I had a great time at my first live Chickenshed show. Although I had certainly enjoyed their online archived work over the pandemic, those pieces had nothing like the power and immediacy being generated here. It was a real reminder that being in the same space as so many committed and talented young performers is really what it’s all about.