Go through Stratford Station one evening between now and Saturday 10 November, look up above the ticket barriers and you'll see rows of faces scanning the crowds, each face topped with a pair of headphones. This is the audience for Small Metal Objects by Back To Back Theatre, a site specific performance in the Barbican's Ozmosis festival of contemporary Australian performance. You can see them but they can't see the actors. You can't hear the actors but you might be standing next to one of them. The actors' dialogue is broadcast directly to the audience through headphones so the performance is theoretically taking place everywhere at once and the entire station is transformed into a theatre where everyone is playing a part in this award-winning production.
Back To Back Theatre makes professional performances with actors deemed to have an intellectual disability. Their 'outsider' status in 'normal' society is gently overturned as Simon Laherty as Steve and Sonia Teuben as Gary wander anonymously through the crowds while the audience is seated in mute rows on the station mezzanine are openly stared at by the passing crowds. It took a while to identify the actors but once we did, the action rushed ahead and a tale of status, power and integrity unfolded in the midst of London rush hour.
Gary and Steve are idly chatting at the train station. Steve becomes rooted to the spot by a metaphysical quandary just as a frantic Alan calls Gary, wanting to urgently buy an undisclosed item. Alan then arrives with psychotherapist colleague Caroline to make his purchase, bearing down on the reluctant Gary and Steve with all the confidence, arrogance and aggression their business suits allow.
It was amusing and thought-provoking to see Alan and Caroline's attempts frustrated by Steve's refusal to budge and Gary's loyalty to Steve. The pair's integrity doubled each time Alan and Caroline reached another stage of desperation, distemper and degradation to get the mystery item. Strongly suggested to be drugs, they could have been pleading to purchase Gary and Steve's dignity which they so badly needed. Caroline's abortive feminine charm was particularly repulsive and the whole exchange was compelling and engaging, especially as it had to be followed up and down the station's stairs and in among the commuter crowd.
Small Metal Objects is the most laugh out loud, gentle and engaging experience you're likely to have at the end of the Jubilee Line. Interruptions of real life added to the sense of risk and provided the best moments of dramatic tension: commuters paused for photographs of us on our red tiered seats, a few followed the actors with dogged curiosity and two puzzled police officers unwittingly circled the actors several times while looking for the subject of our gaze. The actors took their bow on the platform just as a train pulled arrived and hundreds of people went home wondering why they got a round of applause for simply going about their usual business, in their usual way. It's these small scale wonders that are the big rewards of Small Metal Objects.
Picture shows, left to right: Simon Laherty as Steve, Jim Russell as Alan and Sonia Teuben as Gary. Image copyright Elliott Franks.
Small Metal Objects at Stratford Station, until Saturday 10 November. For tickets and venue information, go here.