OK so you've got a bike, you want to visit three of East London's most atmospheric venues and experience three types of performance - all in five hours? That's what the Cycle East camp offered, an hour of theatre (Berkoff, Lenkiewicz, Eldridge), music (Portico Quartet at Toynbee Hall) and choral performance (Helen Chadwick Group at St John's, Hackney) on Sunday 8 March. With the tantalising promise of three premier London playwrights showcasing new shorts at the Arcola on its bare, deep stage we guessed we were in for three evocative snapshots of London / big city life.
Loneliness is the strongest theme across the three pieces impressively conducted by a host of TV faces - most outstanding of all being Joseph Marcell (Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Eastenders) and Amanda Lawrence (Little Dorrit - also worked with Kneehigh and Complicite) in Berkoff's Purgatory. A plea to the tenderness, refinement and eloquence possible between humans, the masterful script was given clearly defined performances teetering on the edge of the absurd with two starstruck lodgers caught somewhere in the east end. It's a real treat to hear noisy neighbours described as ' neanderthals with their knuckles dragging across the floor .' Shame Birds of a Feather's Linda Robinson didn't give the same odd touch as the harping landlady which would have made it the stand out piece.
Lenkiewicz went for the well trodden territory of an epiphany wrapped up as a blind date. Pandora Colin was engaging as the reserved librarian with an enigmatic story to tell. Well contained within it's allotted time, the initial awkwardness between the mismatched couple briefly resolved itself in some form of camaraderie - another characteristic of all the plays.
We've never seen an original David Eldridge play (though his adaptation of Ibsen's Wild Duck at the Donmar in 2006 was fantastic) - quite scandalous considering his work has appeared at the National Theatre and Royal Court. Sad to report we were disappointed by The List, revolving around a death in an east end family with father and brother listening to daughter as she relates the final few pages from her mother's diary. It covered pain, violence, the banking crisis, a family's preference for their son, regeneration and new generations moving back to Hackney Wick better off than when your parents left the east end for Essex. Unfortunately it didn't seem to be going anywhere and didn't have the time to build up any sympathy for the characters - leaving the tragedy of their weak final alliance smashed by the arrival of an outsider (the vicar) - a bit flat.
So there it is, all very London, though maybe a little safe for our tastes in the face of Mercury Award nominees Portico Quartet... and we didn't make it to Helen Chadwick... the torrential weather got the better of us. We really like the idea though, appreciated the performances, just wish Cycle East had shown more strikingly what theatre can be.
By Claire Cooke. Photo of Toynbee Hall by Richard Bryant.