It’s about 16 years since I went to the theatre. You are far more likely to see me dancing away in a nightclub, having a few beers whilst watching the football or in a nice country pub having a roast dinner.
I’m not exactly your average uncultured Neanderthal, but the theatre isn’t something that I generally consider as an evening’s entertainment.
And then I heard the shocking news that Reading Council were considering closing down South Street Arts Centre. How dare they? What a disgrace.
Oh wait a minute – I’ve lived in Reading for 17 years and haven’t even been inside.
The opportunity came up to
try to impress a very attractive young lady, erm, sorry, I mean to take my closest friend out to celebrate passing her accountancy exams, and I decided that this was a perfect match – neither of us had been to the venue, both are intrigued by culture – my friend being someone that actually does occasionally go to events more cultural than techno in a sweaty nightclub in Hackney.
So I looked at the line-up for South Street Arts Centre on quite a shabby Reading Arts website (which has thankfully recently been refreshed and re-launched), became utterly confused as I had no idea what to go see, and almost randomly picked BE Festival, more on the basis that it was 3 short performances so if anything was boring, it wouldn’t last too long.
The online ticket booking process was obstinately painful, particularly with regards to signing up – had I been in one of my more impatient modes, I may have given up and signed up for BJ’s bingo hall.
South Street Arts Centre looks like the archetypal 1960’s mass-produced local education authority school building that you have fond/painful memories of.
Head right when you arrive, around the corridor, and you arrive at the bar with a very sweet and softly-spoken young lady pouring reasonably-priced drinks into relatively sturdy plastic glasses. There are plenty of chairs spaced equally around round tables in 1990’s school canteen style.
If you head left instead, and around the corridor, you will arrive in the theatre.
It isn’t the largest room ever – I think I read correctly that in theory, around 300 people could fit in – one assumes more standing than seated, and that would be quite a squeeze.
For us, there was a stand with 4 rows of seats – I didn’t count but I’d estimate that there were around 48 seats set out, and most were filled so it was a cosy little audience setting.
In front of us was a stage, and for the first performance, a projection screen with video being streamed as we awaited our Juliet. She arrived and sat down, wearing just tights and a t-shirt.
Neanderthal me’s eyes lit up as I realised that she was very, very, very slowly taking her t-shirt off. And I do mean very slowly.
The first ten minutes were quite intense and I was wondering what the hell I was doing here when I could have been watching the Merseyside derby.
But slowly it started to fit into place. It was a recreation of Romeo and Juliet – the actress was Juliet – the audience were Romeo. The actual Shakespeare was in Spanish, which was quite a wonderful touch – I probably understand Spanish as much as ye olde English.
It was translated on screen too, and much of the play was spoken in English.
She did bring over the emotions of Juliet brilliantly, and the initial slow intensity had really drawn me into the play, to my surprise – the pace of the performance matched the emotions in intensity at times – and from a vague northern-understanding of who Shakespeare was, seemed to match his playfulness and humour at times too.
A really brilliant play and 30 minutes I will remember for a long time.
The second performance was about an Irish man and a ball.
When he blew his whistle, we had to close our eyes. When he blew it again, we had to open our eyes. Right… After a few whistles, I went back to schoolboy mode and thought “bollocks” and kept them open for a bit.
But then I realised that the whole thing only works if you follow along. So close and open my eyes 100+ times I did.
It was split into 5 chapters, with movement, juggling and occasional comedy the central strains.
I didn’t quite get the point to it – though I’m not entirely sure there was a point. It was interesting, especially the part where the audience had different views of what happened – as we had picked red and blue tickets upon entry and each group flitted between open and closed – hence trying to generate the feeling of missing out on what others were seeing.
There was a chapter where he got changed from one grey outfit to another. I decided to open my eyes to see if he really was getting changed on stage, I saw that he was in his boxers and about to take them off so I quickly closed my eyes again.
It was interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable.
Finally we had a young chap from Italy who was very keen on some recently-deceased scientist who is apparently very well known in his home country and wanted to replicate her through some kind of interpretative dance (ish) but needed help from the audience.
So someone was looking after a countdown on his phone, someone controlled the lights, three people controlled the music and four helped him on stage with surrounding movements and helping undress him from being this famous female scientist.
He was very fast-paced in his description to his assistants of what he wanted to happen – your stereotypical passionate Italian.
There was plenty of humour mixed in, especially with his facial expressions when trying to ensure his assistants did their jobs – lots of winks, sly pointing, etc.
As a performance it was the lesser-enjoyable of the three but still pleasantly amusing, clever and definitely watchable.
It will not be 16 years until I next go to the theatre.
If you are vaguely curious then I highly recommend booking a ticket to a show. I had next to no idea what to expect and just plumped for something close to random. I paid £14.00 for the ticket which is less than half the price of a football ticket and arguably far more enjoyable.
Just take a risk. You’ll probably be very pleasantly surprised. And they have a bar.