The Back Passages of Spitalfields

Alternative Arts
Starting at Liverpool St. Station

Should you join the throng of about forty people, mostly young, and mostly British, outside Liverpool Street Station on a Sunday evening and hand over a fiver to an amiable Australian in a rather naff suit he will put a sticker on your lapel announcing: ‘I am having a back passage experience’. This site-specific performance cum irreverent walking tour of Spitalfields, presented by Alternative Arts, is the brainchild of Alan Gilby, writer for radio and television, who was born in the area and is still in residence. It is informative in an off-beat way, funny, full of groan-inducing jokes and there are plenty of opportunities for audience participation.

Not only do Gilby and partner in crime Steve Wells regard the area with genuine affection, and relate the history of its existence and development back to Roman times, with successions of immigrants making their mark on trade, industry, social unrest along with gin-joints, poverty, prostitution and danger, but give ironic vent to worries concerning the rapid transformation of Spitalfields by the encroaching glass-cube office blocks of city developers and the gentrification of the ‘Neo-Geo’s restoring the Georgian dwellings of Huguenot silk-weavers. At one point we are told we will have a group photo opportunity and are marched around the corner and lined up along the window of an estate agent and allowed to ‘faint’ at the staggering rise in house prices in an area all too recently a slum. There is a mock ribbon-cutting ceremony outside the café that pored the first cappuccino in Brick Lane and a celebratory firework display opposite the one-time site of the Bryant and May factory where the match-girls launched a successful strike in 1888 for healthier working conditions.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable ninety minutes and Gilby and Wallace poo-poo the official and lugubrious Jack the Ripper tours, which encroach on their territory and apparently steal their jokes. The Ripper was a trivial figure in an area of such daily brutality. The scores for 1885 are, we are told, Jack the Ripper: 5: poverty: 55% of infants up to five years of age. They are a superb and loveable comic duo, and for a grand finale, across from the birthplace of Crazy Gang leader Bud Flannagan and a café once owned by the auntie of one of the Status Quo members, perform Underneath the Arches in the style of Status Quo. Then we are invited to join them in the pub.

While the summer season is now over for this year, they are planning events in November and an Xmas special. Watch out for them!

Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher

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