Not many of London’s ‘urban villages’ have been more mauled about than Stratford.
A combination of attritive decay with a succession of ham-fisted local authority interventions begat a poundshop-dominated 70s shopping arcade on a windswept island choked by a red necklace of double-deckers. The construction of the Olympic site and Westfield complex is a further haymaker punch as its unsightly ‘old’ centre is to be screened from the sensitive gaze of Olympic spectators by a 450-metre metallic frieze of fishy leaves known as the ‘Shoal’.
Which is a pity, because behind it shelters a beacon of goodness, artistic endeavour and community spirit that cannot be crushed by planning committees, the 127-year old Theatre Royal. Itself a survivor of a string of redevelopment initiatives, the building is most famous as the home of Joan Littlewood’s pioneering Theatre Workshop from 1953. In the latest incarnation under artistic director Kerry Michael its manifesto is to bring London’s new communities to the stage, and portray their experiences as second and third generation migrants.
What’s almost more exciting than the artistic endeavour is the artsy, intelligent urban black audience that regularly fills the seats, and the vigour of its community marketing. The latest production, a 50-years-on reworking of Anthony Burgess's ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is outstanding.
In post-rioting London, coinciding with the opening of Westfield and government navel-gazing about the management of angry disaffected youth, it could not be more topical as Alex’s gang of ultra-violent ‘horrorshow ninjas’ bursts hooded onto the stage like a looting gang, but drive the plot with such energy and pace that you’re almost attracted to their motives. Ed Duranté’s boxfresh script and Dawn Reid’s direction play with language so much more generously and musically than the original, that the Stanley Kubrick 1971 movie pales by comparison.
Avoidance of cliché seems to be the production’s hallmark: the violence is choreographed by Jonzi D and Katie Pearson with a rare technique which avoids contact while dramatising impact. Fred Carl’s music is wonderfully undpredictable, finessing hip-hop rhythms with Dave Brubek-louche jazz incidentals, blues and soul. The acting’s fine, too, not just the gang members but their families and victims seem more resilient and three-dimensional, particularly in Susan Lawson Reynolds and Marcus Powell’s sympathetic performances.
But the real discovery is Ashley Hunter, fresh out of Central School of Speech and Drama, entirely engaging and charismatic as Alex. Truly an actor to watch.
A Clockwork Orange continues at Theatre Royal Stratford East until October 1. Tickets £10 to £22. Box Office (staffed by humans actually in the theatre) 020 8534 0310, or online.
Author received complimentary tickets, programme and hospitality from Kim Morgan PR.