The battered but still glorious Council Chamber at the Battersea Arts Centre is equipped with a small band: cello, violin, drums and a tuba played with a mute the size of a barrel.
This is the setting for the defiantly everyday figure of Kate Tempest, a woman with a microphone and a gift for telling stories. A rapper and a wordsmith, this is first time Tempest has attempted anything resembling full length theatre and, over the next 80 minutes of rhymes and songs about ordinary loves and lives in the city, she reveals a captivating talent starting along a new road.
Brand New Ancients uses a central idea - that nothing is new, it has all been experienced before, but that we all hold the old gods inside – to frame stories highlighting the individual nature of universal loves and losses. It is not the most original of ideas, and in fact originality is not the strong point of the show, but Tempest’s performance is. She charms the audience and has them in awe of her ability to carry a lengthy performance, so much so that she receives a surprise standing ovation, a rare beast indeed on a press night.
In their eagerness to accept Tempest’s promising work, the audience had mislaid a little of their perspective. Brand New Ancients is flawed. Some scenes are ill-advised, including a predictable denunciation of reality TV, an unconvincing pub rape scene, and a curious defence of sex tourism. The piece also relies on too many clichés about the urban grittiness of city life. Lazy complaints that no-one in London knows their neighbours, for example, would slot quite happily into the Daily Mail.
However, despite the failings of this particular show Kate Tempest clearly has something special to offer as a charismatic and likeable performer. Nell Catchpole, who wrote the score, also delivers something memorable with her hip, atmospheric accompaniments. We’ll be hearing more of Tempest, without a doubt. Her writing lights up the theatre with inspired flashes; let’s hope she find a way to apply the same level of insight to a complete show.
Brand New Ancients is at Battersea Arts Centre until 22 Sept. Tickets: £12 (£8 concessions).