This page contains reviews originally published in Unfinished Histories newsletters of publications received which have a relationship to the alternative theatre movement. (You can find an archive of earlier Newsletters here) If you would like us to review or mention a relevant book, please send a copy to: Unfinished Histories, c/o Bishopsgate Institute Library, 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4QH.
For further information click on a title to take you to the appropriate Newsletter archive – or to browse, simply scroll down the page.
Playing for Time: Making Art as if the World Mattered by Lucy Neal (Oberon Books, 2015)
The Para-Academic Handbook: A Toolkit for making-learning-creating-acting Debi Withers (HammerOn Press, 2014)
The Magdalena Project@25: Legacy and Challenge by Gilly Adams, Geddy Aniksdal, Maggie Gale, Jill Greenhalgh, Julia Varley (The Open Page Publications, 2013 )
Send Me a Parcel with a Hundred Lovely Things by Carry Gorney (Ragged Clown, 2015)
Partners of the Imagination: the Lives, Arts and Struggles of John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy by Robert Leach (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2012)
British South Asian Theatres: a Documentary History ed. Graham Ley and Sarah Dadswell (includes DVD) (University of Exeter Press, 2011)
Taking on the Empire by Roland Muldoon (JustPress, 2013)
Walking On My Hands: how I learned to take responsibility for my life with the help of Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Greta Garbo, Harvey Milk, Idi Amin, Guy the Gorilla, & Frank Sinatra among others by Beth Porter (Womenstuff Publishing, 2016)
Fragments of Joy and Sorrow – Memoirs of a reluctant revolutionary by Alan Wakeman (Fantastic Books Publishing, 2015)
Sistershow Revisited: Feminism in Bristol 1973-1975 collected by Deborah M. Withers (Hammer/On Press, 2011)
Ken Campbell – The Great Caper by Michael Coveney, foreword by Richard Eyre, (Nick Hern Books, 2011)
Abstract Vaudeville: the Work of Rose English by Guy Brett (Ridinghouse, 2014)
The Only Way Home is Through the Show: Performance Work of Lois Weaver ed. Jen Harvie and Lois Weaver, (Intellect Books/ LADA, 2015)
Histories and Practices of Live Art edited by Deirdre Heddon and Jennie Klein (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
Are We There Yet?: Live Art and Feminism (LADA, 2015)
The Spanner Experiment by Ernest Dalton (Just Press, 2010)
Theatre in Pieces: Politics, Poetics and Interdisciplinary Collaboration: an Anthology of Play Texts 1966-2010 ed. Anna Furse (Methuen Drama, 2011)
Women’s Worlds by Steve Gooch (Christine Kimberley, 2015)
Artistic Licence by Steve Gooch (Christine Kimberley, 2015)
Utopia: Three Plays for a Post-Dramatic Theatre by Claire MacDonald (Intellect, 2015)
Wyres Cross by Peta Masters and Geraldine Griffiths (Lulu, 2012)
Drama Queen: Beth Porter’s Collection of Scripts and Screenplays by Beth Porter (Porter, 2015)
200 Weeks by Gavin Richards (Muswell Press, 2015)
Abstract Vaudeville: the Work of Rose English by Guy Brett, Ridinghouse, 2014 [ISBN: 978-1-905464-82-1], Utopia: Three Plays for a Post-Dramatic Theatre by Claire MacDonald, Intellect, 2015 [ISBN: 978-1-78320-462-5], The Only Way Home is Through the Show: Performance Work of Lois Weaver ed. Jen Harvie and Lois Weaver, Intellect Books/ LADA, 2015 [ISBN: 978-1-78320-534-9]
Until recently much of the work of experimental women theatre artists in Britain had gone unpublished. When the Live Art Development Agency did a feminist guide to its study room last year, it seemed that the vast majority of individual artists whose work was on the shelves, Marina Abramovic apart, were Americans. There is still much that needs to be done but some recent volumes have done something to rectify that. Claire MacDonald‘s script Storm from Paradise was originally published along with Rose English’s Walks on Water in Deborah Levy’s long out-of-print 1992 anthology Walks on Water and Other Plays. But that was about it, apart from scattered writings and extracts. Now three of Claire’s plays have been published together while the work of Rose English has been documented in an exquisitely produced volume Abstract Vaudeville which brings together detailed descriptions of performances, interviews, scripts, research materials, analysis, sketches, designs, a chronology and a huge array of extraordinary photographs, enabling an assessment of her whole career from the early site-specific performances with Sally Potter and Jacky Lansley, created and (in part) staged in a Mornington Crescent squat. Scripts or of descriptions of actions are included for works including Berlin, Plato’s Chair, Thee Thou Thy Thine, Tantamount Esperance, The Double Wedding, My Mathematics and numerous others in a volume that makes her work available, at least in the form of documentation, for a new generation, radically enlarges the concept of the performance text and celebrates her unique contribution to art, performance and theatre, in work that draws on circus, vaudeville, opera, interrogates ideas of theatricality and meditates on philosophy.
I originally saw Claire MacDonald’s An Imitation of Life at the Bush Theatre in 1989 and was fascinated by its ability to summon up worlds, both on stage and imaginatively through the fictions conjured by the characters to alter and reroute and contest them and evoke a complex relationship, through minimal action and inter-action. It evoked the possibility of a new kind of theatre, dreamlike and multi-layered, and a new kind of performance text. Published with a conversation with Lenora Champagne about their routes / roots as writers for performance and those who influenced them, including women playwrights like Adrienne Kennedy, Gertrude Stein, Fiona Templeton and Maria Irene Fornes, Utopia also includes as well as the two later plays, an introduction by Claire and essays/letters by Tim Etchells and Dee Heddon. It reinforces the need to have a proper documentation of the hugely influential Impact Theatre Cooperative, with whom Claire MacDonald collaborated (with Pete Brooks, Graeme Miller, Steve Shill et al) and developed her first experimental performance texts.
Lois Weaver is American, though she has been based in Britain for many years. While her work with Peggy Shaw and Deb Margolin in Split Britches has been the focus of much critical attention, The Only Way Home is Through the Show broadens the focus to document her wider performance career, both pre-Split Britches and as a solo artist, director, festival organiser, activist, academic and performance maker, collecting together critical essays and appreciations by writers including Sue-Ellen Case, Joan Nestle,Helen Paris, Elin Diamond and many others, together with collages of archive materials, performance texts, poems, memoir, script, lyrics, as well as methodologies as facilitator of discussion / performance exchange for her innovative Long Tables and Porch Sittings. It tracks the the early beginnings of the WOW cafe, addresses Belle Reprieve, the queer interrogation of A Streetcar Named Desire made by Split Britches with BLOOLIPS, and includes an interview with Lois by her performance alter ego country and western star and lesbian performance artist Tammy WhyNot, among much else. The only disappointment is that Patience and Sarah in which Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw performed in London in 1983, a key moment in lesbian feminist performance in Britain, receives so slight a mention, but that is a small quibble in another handsome, beautifully designed and fascinating volume.
Finally – though I’ve not yet seen a copy – Beth Porter another American, long-term British resident and vital contributor to the history of experimental performance, as the founder in 1968 of Wherehouse La MaMa, has just published her autobiography: Walking On My Hands: how I learned to take responsibility for my life with the help of Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Greta Garbo, Harvey Milk, Idi Amin, Guy the Gorilla, & Frank Sinatra among others (Womenstuff Publishing, 2016), available through Kindle.
Steve Gooch‘s career as a playwright goes back to the 1970s with translations of Brecht and the classic Female Transport, focused on a group of women convicts being sent to Australia, which premiered at the Half Moon and has subsequently been performed all over the world. The new collection Women’s Worlds (Christine Kimberley, 2015, ISBN 978-0-9564964-2-3) reissues Female Transport together with a series of more recent female-focused plays including the Sussex-set community play British Beauty about the artist and feminist Barbara Bodichon and her relationship with the Rossettis, Cocky’s Girls and Massa, about Arthur Munby, middle-class Victorian writer with a fixation on working women such as pit-brow lasses and Hannah Culliwick, the maid-of-all-work with whom he enjoyed their master-slave relationship and secret marriage. A further volume Artistic Licence (Christine Kimberley, 2015, ISBN 978-0-9564964-1-6) explores the lives of artists in After Rembrandt; in Dark Glory , the early years of the poet Tennyson and, in Spanish Walk, writers in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
Send Me a Parcel with a Hundred Lovely Things
By Carry Gorney (Ragged Clown Publishing ISBN: 9781 910667 019)
Carry Gorney’s autobiography gives a vivid account of her childhood in a secular Jewish family in Yorkshire, growing up between cultures and languages. Her grandparents were German Jewish immigrants to Britain who ended up owning a shoddy mill, recycling rags, lived through the First World War in Dewsbury in an atmosphere of mistrust and spent the post-war period between Yorkshire and Berlin. Carry’s mother spent much of her teenage years in Berlin where as holders of British passports gave them an escape route from the advancing horrors overtaking their wider family and community. But escape to wartime Britain brought internment on the Isle of Man for her German Jewish husband as an enemy alien. It’s a densely packed and compelling narrative interspersed with an account of her mother’s final years, even before we reach Carry’s birth and 50s childhood. The memoir’s main interest in the context of this newsletter is the account of Carry Gorney’s meeting with ED Berman, playing games with kids under the Westway and her subsequent breakneck narrative of hurtling up and down the M1 in a psychedelic Morris between teacher training in Leeds and intensely-packed weekends with Inter-Action. Lively descriptions follow of the establishment of Interplay in Leeds and later work at Inter-Action (Milton Keynes) along with the excitement of involvement in the early Women’s Movement in 1972 and the personal costs of all this in a brief period of breakdown, and then more work with children and young people. There is some confusion around the odd date: the Drury Lane Arts Lab was long gone by the time Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party was made in 1979. But it is an inspiring, copiously illustrated and very welcome account of the times, the work and what drove it at a period of highly important creative upsurge. (Susan Croft)
Alan Wakeman‘s autobiography Fragments of Joy and Sorrow – Memoirs of a reluctant revolutionary has just been published by Fantastic Books Publishing. Alan was instrumental in making our recent Homosexual Acts benefit happen and was one of the founder members of Gay Sweatshop where his play Ships appeared in the first season at the Almost Free Theatre in 1975. He has also been a Soho resident for many years and active campaigner for its preservation, campaigner for Gay Rights generally, author of language-teaching courses, translator (including of Le Petit Prince) and co-author a groundbreaking Vegan Cookbook (with Gordon Baskerville, Faber & Faber 1998). Alan was interviewed for Unfinished Histories in 2014 and helped organise the Benefit/ celebration of the 40th anniversary of Gay Sweatshop, Homosexual Acts in February 2015. He died in August 2015. You can order a copy of his memoir here.
Playing for Time: Making Art as if the World Mattered by Lucy Neal (Oberon Books ISBN: 9781783191864)
Recently published (we hope to review it over the summer) it is described as a ‘groundbreaking handbook is a resource for artists, community activists and anyone wishing to reach beyond the facts and figures of science and technology to harness their creativity to make change in the world. This timely book explores the pivotal role artists play in re-thinking the future; re-inventing and re-imagining our world at a time of systemic change and uncertainty’
Live Art and Feminism
LADA have just issued their Study Room Guide: Are We There Yet? on Live Art and Feminism, the culmination of an investigation (and starting point for many new ones) into the subject as part of the Restock, Rethink, Reflect an ongoing series of initiatives for, and about, artists who working with issues of identity politics and cultural difference in radical ways, and which aims to map and mark the impact of art to these issues, whilst supporting future generations of artists through specialized professional development, resources, events and publications.
Reviews and Notices December 2014
Unfinished Histories interviewee Beth Porter and founder of Wherehouse La MaMa has brought an e-collection of her writing for performance. More in a future newsletter but details of content and how to order are here
Gavin Richards Book Launch
Gavin Richards, writer, director, actor and key collective member of Belt and Braces 200 Weeks, published by Muswell Press Braces is over in Britain for a visit and will be launching a book of poetry , with a launch on 15th January (6.30 to 8.30 pm) at Daunt Books on South End Green in Hampstead.
Debi Withers’ HammerOn Press has just published the ground-breaking The Para-Academic Handbook: A Toolkit for making-learning-creating-acting
£18 printed copy, Open Access Download
Para-Academia delineates the area in which many of us make work, practical, critical, hybrid, marginal, resistant of appropriation by academic structures and theory while drawing out, questioning and remaking those structures and languages. “This book collects global perspectives of people who feel connected, in different ways, to the practice of para-academia. These people work alongside, beside, next to, and rub up against the proper location of the Academy, making the work of higher education a little more irregular and perverse.
Ruth Barcan, author of Academic Life and Labour in the New University: Hope and Other Choices, writes that this is an “important new book … simultaneously a critique, a lament and a re-envisaging. It is a compelling portrait of the new topographies of higher education and a testament to the power, inventiveness and resilience of those who work within, across and beyond its new spaces”.
Gary Rolfe, author of The University in Dissent, calls the volume “a hugely important book for anyone who feels (as I often do) alienated or marginalised by corporate academic life … ”
It is published as Open Access download from 15 September 2014, print copies available for £18 from the HammerOn site and all good bookshops. A launch event is being held on: Saturday 11 October, 3-5pm at Hydra Books, Bristol with another, details to follow, in London on Saturday 6 December. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org further information or to order a copy.
Partners of the Imagination: the Lives, Arts and Struggles of John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy by Robert Leach
Published by Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2012 ISBN: 9781907401756
When I studied John Arden’s work at university the focus was on the Royal Court and mainstream plays as brilliant individual scripts, with much of his other work, especially his work with D’Arcy, presented as the aberrant, marginal results of his having been led astray by a crazy wife. Robert Leach’s book at last returns the work of the two writers to its roots in a consistent developing political consciousness and activism and its source in their ongoing creative collaboration. So much of their work from Ars Longa Vita Breviswith Albert Hunt to the local Kirkbymoorside 63 festival to collaborations with John Fox and Sue Gill and with Roland Muldoon first presages and then influences / is influenced by the growing alternative theatre movement and becomes part of it, with Squire Jonathan and later The Non-Stop Connolly Show being performed at Inter-Action’s Ambiance/Almost Free Theatre. It includes detailed examinations of D’Arcy and Arden’s early radical theatre experiments in community theatre, at the Roundhouse, with CAST and elsewhere, and presents a highly detailed, illuminating and compelling discussion of the development of their radicalism and their work individually, such as D’Arcy’s work with Galway Women’s Pirate Radio Station or Arden’s novels and radio plays, and together. (Susan Croft)
We just received the new book Histories and Practices of Live Art edited by Deirdre Heddon and Jennie Klein. It traces the history of the development of performance art/ live art back to the 1950s and 60s and forward to today. While much of its focus is inevitably on solo performance, it also addresses the importance of the group structures that supported the work including journals like the Performance Magazine, Arts Council initiatives and reports that contextualised the work and encouraged new directions. Claire MacDonald’s essay in particular All Together Now on collaboration and performance explores the influence of work like Albert Hunt’s Bradford Art College Theatre Company, Welfare State, John Bull Puncture Repair Kit and her own work within the theatre co-operative Impact. It also connects them with the discussions around the politics and ethics of collaboration within the alternative theatre scene more generally.
Taking on the Empire
Book reviews by Susan Croft
The Spanner Experiment by Ernest Dalton, Just Press, 2010. £8 + £1.50 p&p Order at: www.justpress.co.uk
Compared to today where the technologies of typography are so easily available and works originated by small-scale companies are frequently published, in the 1970s this was very much a rarity. Numerous plays of that period have languished unpublished – those that made it into archives being all-too-rare, many others doomed, no doubt, to be lost forever. It is therefore a great boon when neglected work is republished and becomes once more available for production and study or as a model for new work. Dalton’s The Spanner Experiment makes available two agit-prop plays from North West Spanner, a company that in 1977 became a cause célèbre after North West Arts Association attempted to de-fund them under pressure from local right-wing politicians, leading to national campaigns across the sector involving theatre companies, writers and TACT, the Association of Community Theatre Companies, and a conference in Salford against political censorship. Dalton reproduces a fascinating group of photos and archive items as part of the publication. The plays are Just a Cog (1976) and Partisans (1978), both scripted by Dalton. Written for performance to shop-floor workers in clubs and works’ canteens, they explore the efforts of union members to deal with threats of take-over, to support the struggle of other workers for union recognition and to remain positive in the face of the apathy of fellow workers, opposition from spouses, exhaustion, management’s attempts to buy them off and the pressure of national events.
The Magdalena Project@25: Legacy and Challenge by Gilly Adams, Geddy Aniksdal, Maggie Gale, Jill Greenhalgh, Julia Varley (The Open Page Publications / Odin Teatrets forlag www.odinteatret.dk)
The Magdalena Project was established in 1986 out of the frustration of women in laboratory theatre companies throughout Europe, such as Cardiff Laboratory Theatre, Odin Teatret, Grenland Friteater at the relative isolation and invisibility of women within companies generally dominated by charismatic visionary men. In common with women in political theatre companies or other areas of physical theatre they wanted to create their own work, but where, for example, women’s theatre company, Bloomers, broke off from Belt and Braces or Sadista Sisters emerged out of dissatisfaction with women’s restrictive roles in Steven Berkoff’s work, women from within the laboratory companies more often created work alongside that of the original company, demanded creative space or resources within it, set up projects, workshops and festivals, creating a fluid and adaptive structure of individuals and groups: the Magdalena Project. Work has focused on exploring female mythologies, investigating the idea of a female language in theatre, re-examining archetypes, re-appropriating traditional vocabularies. This fluid structure has allowed the project to become a network where activities move from country to country, depending on the energies and passions of the groups and individuals driving the work and on the resources available, and to adapt its communications as new technologies developed, while drawing from the experience of the founders, most centrally Jill Greenhalgh, all of which factors have given the project a remarkable longevity. This has also fed into creating regular publications, documenting or theorising the work, including the journal The Open Page. This latest book, as a collection of contributions, is perhaps inevitably uneven. It is less successful in some of the more effusive pieces where women pay tribute to how Magdalena changed their lives, evoke the wonders of encountering the meeting of difference, celebrating diversity of women coming from different cultures, but with little specificity, nor much that engages with the challenges, difficulties and creative disagreements that must surely also have been part of that process. And I was relieved when Gilly Adams wrote that ‘I may run amok with a pair of scissors if I see any more long hair being blown, thrown or gazed through’ – incising one particular Magdalena stereotype. It is at its best when writers evoke the precise experience of a specific project, performance memory, workshop exercise, and what that revealed, or in personal accounts of struggle as women wrestle to find creative space, time and resources to make work while juggling other demands on their lives, or to continue to make work in the teeth of despondency and a culture of indifference, finding in Magdalena a lifeline, a network of lifelines.
We would like to draw attention to the recent publication for the first time of the legendary Wyres Cross by Peta Masters and Geraldine Griffiths. Produced by Mrs Worthington’s Daughters’ Daughters in 1982 the show was a feminist soap opera, performed as a serial in four parts, where audiences had to follow the developing action across two different venues (The Kings Head and Drill Hall). ‘It led us through all the dramas of everyday suburban existence from the sixteen year-old boy who has got his married mistress pregnant (and hubby has had a vasectomy…) to the alarming arrival of three stroppy feminist performers who call themselves The Norfolk Broads” wrote Barney Bardsley in Spare Rib calling it the most delightful thing she saw in the Women Live festival. It became a great success, not least because of the live adverts for real products like Worthington E beer which were performed by the cast, reinforcing the ‘soap opera’ model and also providing funding towards the project. It has been published in a special 30th anniversary edition with illustrations by Lucy Byatt. To order go to: www.lulu.com/shop/masters-griffiths/wyres-cross/paperback/product-20075072.html
British South Asian Theatres: a Documentary History ed. Graham Ley and Sarah Dadswell (includes DVD)
University of Exeter Press, 2011, pp265, ISBN: 9780859898331
Recent years have seen a hugely welcome expansion in the critical attention given Asian theatre in Britain examined alongside Black theatre in books by Colin Chambers (Black and Asian Theatre in Britain – to be reviewed) and the edited volumes Staging New Britain: Aspects of Black and South Asian British Theatre Practice (ed. Geoffrey V. Davis and Anne Fuchs) and Alternatives Within the Mainstream (ed. Dimple Godiwala) and on its own in Dominic Hingorani’s British Asian Theatre. This new volume is especially welcome in the precise attention it gives to tracing a meticulous history of each company, drawing on reviews, flyers, interviews, video, and those scripts that have survived, to create a detailed record of the work. This work is particularly vital in relation to those theatres, operating in the 1970s and 80s that had been previously neglected: British Asian Theatre, Hounslow Arts Co-op, Asian Co-operative Theatre and it is immensely useful to see the work of the better-documented Tara Arts alongside other early initiatives, enabling comparisons. Also for once given attention are the output of later less-celebrated companies like Man Mela, Rasa Theatre and the Lancashire-based Peshkar Productions. It is unfortunate not to have a more detailed account of the South Asian language theatres that came before, some of them active from the 1960s as Naseem Khan’s report The Arts Britain Ignores pointed to, back in 1976; most of the examples in the first chapter here are from the 1990s and beyond. The volume is enhanced by an inclusion of a DVD of extracts from recordings and scans of reviews, photos and flyers, making it an excellent teaching resource, though inevitably sound and video images are of variable quality. As a contributor to its companion volume Critical Essays on British South Asian Theatre, I should probably declare an interest in the project, but as an activist for the documentation of so much neglected work from the alternative theatre movement, it is inspiring to see a vital history retrieved from memory and archives to inspire future work.
Theatre in Pieces: Politics, Poetics and Interdisciplinary Collaboration: an Anthology of Play Texts 1966-2010 ed. Anna Furse
Methuen Drama, 2011 pp 404, ISBN 9781408139967
Technically the work collected in this book falls outside Unfinished Histories remit, given our focus on the period 1968 to 1988. The first text it anthologises is US by Peter Brook et al from 1966 and the others all date from 1990 and beyond. This is frustrating only in that there are so many texts to be recorded and rediscovered from within those 20 years. At the same time Brook’s show, developed with Albert Hunt among others, came out of his early experiments with theatrical languages that also included his work with LAMDA students on the Theatre of Cruelty that led to Marat/ Sade, two key experiments in political theatre and physical theatre vocabularies that fed into so much of the work of the alternative theatre movement. Most of the work that is included here has deep roots in the movement: Pete Brooks and Graeme Miller as former members of Impact Theatre Co-operative, Anna Furse herself in Blood Group, Split Britches, starting out at the radical WOW cafe in New York, Julia Bardsley with Gaudete, and in the work of Mojisola Adebayo, the youngest contributor, drawing on Augusto Boal in her piece with Ramallah-based Ashtar Theatre, 48 Minutes for Palestine. These are all fascinating and complex texts, experimental not only in the exploration of theatrical language that took place on the stage, but also textually beautiful and compex, investigating how to create appropriate form on the page to reflect that onstage experiment (the unsung typographer was the inexhaustible Simon Trussler, critic and veteran of years of engagement with the performance text). Especially striking is Graeme Miller’s A Girl Skipping, a collage of photographs of original texts, typed on dog-eared sheets of paper, handwritten lists of words, held for the camera by visible hands, alongside texts describing process, a performance text allowing many entrance points. It could be reproduced by a new group of performers but the play text makes visible the need for their input to play in and with the text, to re-make it. This volume cries out for others to fill in the undocumented histories and capture – something of – the lost play texts of Blood Group, Impact, Gaudete – and so many more.
Sistershow Revisited: Feminism in Bristol 1973-1975 collected by Deborah M. Withers
(Hammer/On Press, 2011, £8. Order at: www.hammeronpress.net )
In 2006 the inaugural Unfinished Histories event included a ‘Whatever Happened to Women’s Theatre?’ discussion at the Theatre Museum. Our list of women’s theatre groups formed between the 70s and the 90s then ran to about 80 companies, which seemed an amazing number. Still, it wasn’t complete and many more have now been added to the list, including one of the earliest, the Bristol-based Sistershow. Their first show, produced in 1973, pre-dates even the Women’s Theatre Festival at the Almost-Free Theatre later that year, out of which grew Women’s Theatre Group and later Monstrous Regiment. Until now the group’s history and significance has remained undocumented. It is down to the excellent work of Debi Withers that this is no longer the case. This book was produced as part of a larger project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to collect oral histories on the group and stage an exhibition, opening earlier this year with a reunion of surviving Sistershow members and an inspiring programme of talks, workshops and performances.
The book reproduces much of the exhibition content including vivd colour photos, personal testimonies, as well as many of the surviving archive items Withers collected including hand-written lyrics, drawings for flyers, letters, ‘cyclo-styled’ leaflets: Letraset, marks of correction fluid, crossings-out and annotations, bearing evidence to the technologies – or lack of them – that were available at the time. Most importantly, as its sub-title implies, the book contextualises the performances within the larger framework of the women’s movement in Bristol, a space of fierce argument and passionate personal commitment: the Women’s Centre was the basement of activist Ellen Malos’s own house, a space where before campaigns for refuges, vulnerable women and their families would sleep on the bed in the office.
The Sistershow performances were large-scale, irreverent and whackily surreal, suggesting the influence of 1960s of happenings and multi-media. They also reflected the input of two powerful individual women, memorialized here: visual artist Jackie Thrupp who died in 1991 and Pat VT West, poet, playwright and performance artist who died in 2008. They played with gender and parodied femininity including in a Miss Women’s Liberation contest – ‘won’ by black drag queen, Sapphire. They were punk, before punk. They included songs, poetry, used tape-slide projections, music, paintings, ‘sideshows and surprises’. Withers re-creates in as much detail as possible what survives of the texts and scenarios of each Sistershow, along with the working process that created it and the conflicts over class, parenting responsibilities or the lack of them, organisational methods, strong personalities that affected it, a familiar litany. As Withers writes, this ‘only underlines the group’s achievements more’. This is an inspiring and important account of vital era. Susan Croft, July 2011
Ken Campbell – The Great Caper. Michael Coveney, foreword by Richard Eyre
(Nick Hern Books. £14.99. Order at: www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/?isbn=9781848420762)
Ken Campbell was a one-off. Anyone who saw him will remember that he was inimical; he simply couldn’t be replicated. It was in part the wild eyed effervescence and joy, the digressionary tales that beavered off into highways and byways and took such circuituous detours you thought he’d never get back to the main road – or thematic thrust. And then there was the tumbling erudition, pouring out of him, the absurdity of it as well as the cosmic intelligence. And those eyebrows. Set for take-off.
I didn’t see him nearly enough, only catching up with him towards the end of his life when he had practically become a National Treasure. So I missed The Warp, Recollections of a Furtive Nudist, Illuminatus and many more. I think I may have caught The Pidgin Macbeth, Jamais Vu and Theatre Stories.
For anyone wanting to know exactly how the lad from Ilford ended up wowing audiences at the Cottesloe as much as in Liverpool’s Hope Street, look no further than Michael Coveney’s ebullient `authorised biography’ according to the grey parrot who shares Coveney’s cover page.
Coveney’s admiration and appreciation of Campbell as a force of nature and maverick counter-balance to the puffed-up worthies who dominate British theatre shines out from every page. Coveney, another unlikely lad from the Essex marshes, clearly feels affinities with Campbell’s egocentricities as well as his obsessions. There is hardly a dull moment in the entire 250 odd pages and a more engaging, juicy and yes, erudite account of the spirit that animated `alternative’ and fringe theatre through the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s it would be hard to find. This is a first rate primer of that extraordinary time, filled with egocentricity, sci-fi and paranormal happenings. And unputdownable. (Carole Woddis, July 2011)