Catherine Ireton’s What is it about that night, took place backstage at the Hexagon theatre, and is part of Sitelines festival, curated by South Street Arts Centre, showcasing site-specific and site responsive theatre in Reading.
The festival bills itself as ‘theatre in unusual places’, but oddly, there should be no more usual a place for theatre than in the theatre. But this is not theatre in a theatre, where everyone pretends each other isn’t there. This is theatre in the corridors and dressing rooms, in the store rooms and corners that the public never sees.
Seeing unseen places in a familiar building is like discovering another world at the back of a wardrobe, and our guide shows us this new world with just as much childlike excitement as the audience feels.
An audience of 20 wanders through the secret corridors of the backstage area at the Hexagon theatre, led by a stage manager full of warmth and charm; a storyteller, who guides us with words and song, to discover hidden places. Each scene she recreates is a memory of a moment in the life of a stage manager; the ironing, the laying out of props, the balletic pulling of the ropes.
Huddled in a hot dressing room, she produces a little metal music box, feeds large theatre tickets through it and sings to us. She tells us to let ourselves fall back, to relax, she is there. And we do, we trust her to take us through dark corridors, up little ladders, to crawl underneath the stage, and with each risk we take we are rewarded with the gift of a beautiful song.
The show feels secret, and special. Travelling through the unseen network of rooms and stairwells, behind the scenes, each space we discover is musically crafted with a different atmosphere, full of little surprises and moments of real, quiet, undemanding magic.
The material is similar for each show, but it is performed in a different theatre and so it is somewhat reshaped for the space in which it is performed, and yet, because the content is so simple and clear, that it effortlessly feels like it was written just for that particular space.
There would be opportunities for the audience to respond more, to answer questions or share ideas, the simplicity of the piece leaves scope for this kind of risk taking. Instead, we left in a sort of reverential silence.
Just like a whisper in the wings when the show is in full swing, this humble, understated performance captures perfectly the essence of those who work in the shadows to make theatre come to life. It is a love song, not to Theatre the concept or the art form, and not to the theatre, the bricks and ropes and curtains, but to the people off stage, whose meticulous attention to detail, and tireless dedication bring the shows together.
It is a love song to the passionate stage managers who feel the world will end if they are 8 seconds late with the hat and the plate of sandwiches at the moment the actor needs it. We are immersed in their world for just a short hour, and Catherine’s performance makes it feel like a privilege.
Last year, I saw Punchdrunk’s immersive, promenade show The Drowned Man and was struck by the strength of the audience’s desperation to be pulled out of the crowd for a ‘one on one’ performance; a desire for a secret, personal, intimate theatre experience. Ireton’s show feels as special as being the lucky one that gets picked for a ‘one on one’, but it is somehow more intimate.
There is no large crowd rushing to catch a glimpse of the next piece of music or choreography, there is nothing disorientating, it is scaled right down, stripped back to its most honest and poignant root, and delivered, gently wrapped in a musical ribbon.
Catherine Ireton could be excused for carrying this show with the beauty of her voice alone, it really is something special, but there is no need. The story telling, the setting, the song writing; each element of this show is delicately placed, like a prop, in just the right place, and delivered with warmth and soulfulness.
Part of South Street Arts Centre’s Sitelines festival of theatre in unusual spaces. June 2014
This review first appeared in the British Theatre Guide