Heartfelt: Your Big Community Show @ Theatre Royal Stratford East – A Review

As part of the Theatre Royal Stratford East’s ‘Open Stage‘ season for 2012 (where the productions are based around suggestions from members of the community) comes ‘Heartfelt’.

Involving young local actors from several different groups supported by the theatre  including ‘Winging It’ (members of a ten week improvisational workshop based at Stratford), ‘State Of The Nation Crew’ (the theatre’s young people’s theatre group) and the Stratford East Singers, ‘Heartfelt’ took the audience on an emotional journey, both physical and spiritual.

Devised by Rikki Beadle Blair with support from John R Gordon and Kerry Michael, the six-run show over last weekend actually started out in the foyer. The young people improvised as beggars and street hawkers to the waiting audience, which I think caught some people unawares (I certainly didn’t grasp what was happening until my second encounter!). We were then ushered inside for a stage performance using a device I’ve seen used at the Theatre Royal before – young people reciting recorded lines from interviewees playing back into their earpieces.

Things got increasingly strange from there however, as loud interruptions from the audience started to disrupt the show. As you might guess, this was another piece of improv, and those actors sooned joined the others on stage. It wasn’t long before the audience was invited up too, the fire curtain lowering and the stage filling with swirling dry ice as we were serenaded by a rather accomplished singer. From there, we exited stage left, passing through the branches of an enchanted forest on a journey that would take us all the way around the theatre’s backstage areas from the top to the bottom of the building.

In between interrupting heated conversations in corridors and dressing rooms as we passed through the corridors and up and down stairs we experienced a dizzying array of performances in a wild variety of acting styles:

    • scenes of abusive behaviour as actors leapt over the upstairs bar to harangue the audience
    • peered in on a diva singing behind the glass wall of the green room
    • witnessed the moans and screams of the deranged in a white-walled asylum
    • heard the sad tale of a young woman with a unloved baby born of any number of sexual encounters in a surreal butterfly garden
    • experienced the atmosphere of a highly-charged congregation shouting hallelujahs in a bright, silvery chapel, and
    • crept down into the dank bowels of the building to listen to the cries for help from the blanket-shrouded homeless

Given the entirely unpredictable nature of what was happening around us it should come as no surprise that the final act saw the audience looking through a mirror, as we arrived back on the stage to find the curtain rising and the performers applauding  us from the auditorium. We took our bows and exited the stage…

‘Heartfelt’ was truly magical, and I’m still in awe of its incredible complexity and the amount of sheer hard graft that must have gone into the transformation of the entire theatre into one huge performance space. I’m hoping that if the cast and artistic team have any energy left we might see it repeated later in the season – if it does reappear you absolutely must go to see it. Great performances combined with a grand tour of the theatre is an absolute winner in my book!

Of course Open Stage 2012 continues – you can see upcoming events over on the Theatre Royal Stratford East’s website here. As a sign of how important this theatre is I can also tell you that last Saturday a production of ‘Roadkill’, a play from last autumn’s season, won the 2012 Olivier Award for “Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre’.

[box] As a brief aside I should just say that I don’t style myself as a theatre critic but I am definitely a theatre cheerleader, which is a very different thing. Theatre is an important part of my cultural landscape, and with prices outside the West End being comparable to that of a movie ticket and a tub of popcorn you should make it part of yours too, whether that’s the Theatre Royal Stratford East, the Hackney Empire, the Arcola, the Camden People’s Theatre, the New Diorama or any of the multitude of local theatres in London. [/box]

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