Beyond the Pale

Devised and directed by Jamie Harper and Andrew Pawlby
The London Quest Company
Southwark Theatre

Publicity photo

This title means much more than the current usage of 'outside acceptable behaviour,' it goes back to the original meaning that prompted that expression: a boundary or barrier like the Irish Pale with which the Norman conquerors kept the barbarian Irish out of the settled Dublin area, the Pale of Calais which protect the last English possession in France or the Pale with which Catherine of Russia restricted where Jews were allowed to live.

This Pale is the South Wark Pale erected for the protection of the people of north London to separate them from the impoverished and lawless area of South Wark. Segregated from the life of London this transpontine world had its social services reduced, then public funding removed completely. In 1990 the South Wark folk rebelled but, blocked by the North Bank authorities, the rioters turned on each other and South Wark became a shambles. The authorities destroyed the bridges and severed all links. Since the millennium, in a political move to gain approval, the borders were reopened, though strictly controlled. South Wark folk who pass rigorous checks may be awarded a hard-to-come-by pass to cross the frontier into London.

Here, south of the river, people still live in a world where rats are said to be the size of dogs and drugs, prostitution and exploitation are rife. Florence McHugh's design for this largely promenade performances turns the tunnels beneath the tracks and platforms of London Bridge station into a shanty town of corrugated iron and reused bits of buildings littered with broken things. It is a cold and intimidating terrain through which hooded yahoos drift aimlessly.

Although they did not know it, the audience, by the act of turning up, have automatically enrolled themselves as volunteers to work for a rescue centre run on a shoestring by charitable Londoners.

All this can be discovered from a programme note, from the briefing given to groups in the bar as you arrive or by quizzing the social workers who are sizing up your potential to help in a literacy campaign or perhaps run sporting activities. You are going to go on a briefing visit 'beyond the pale' and discover what it is like out there. You are free to ask questions directly of the characters and express opinions. Of course, you can't be made to actively participate, and if you would rather just watch and listen that is fine. However, a mark of the success of this production is how many of the audience actually do become involved, including at least two recognizable critics on the night I saw it, and that some people I was convinced were part of the cast, so fluently outspoken and appropriate were their contributions to the action, one Irish lady especially, who turned out to be genuine audience members, and quite a few whose very appropriate dress made them look consciously in character.

The situation made me expect exposure to a demonstration of how social intervention works, and a metaphor for our own situation when conscience may be reawakened in a world where, after a Thatcherite declaration that 'there is no such thing as Society' and the destruction of traditional occupations, there is a deep division in society between haves and have-nots. To some extent it is, in that it gives the audience to the power to make, or at least try to influence, decisions about other people's lives, but its spilt society is also a metaphor for the division between the advanced world and those countries caught up both poverty and turmoil and whether our ideas of what is good for others really takes their needs and aspirations into consideration.

This is a play and the production is complex in that the audience is split into to groups which take different routes through South Wark and see different scenes, though sharing those which begin and end the sequences. Everything is carefully timed and interwoven; the cast do have to keep within the framework however much they allow the audience to change the detail.

The original Rescue Centre had been set up by John (Ciaran McConville) with two assistants (Georgia Dolenz and Padma Damodaran) - these are the people who greet you in the bar, but with the help of John's journalist lover Tom (Kyle Riley) a government minister (James Powell) becomes convinced there is kudos to be gained by giving support. He involves successful businessman Giles (Richard Atwill) who not only put up the cash but turns out to have been born in South Wark and decides to head the organisation.

There is a conflict here in attitudes between the original volunteers and Giles and is consultant (James Powell) and we see its effect on the lives of a small group of South Wark individuals (Henriikka Kemppi, Tiffany Wood, Susanna Fiore and Simon Nicholas) and on a young couple from Islington (Benjamin Peters and Luanna Priestman).

The format is not strictly logical. It opens with private scenes that set up the situation before you actually become part of it and puts you in others where such a large group of people would not be tolerated but the performances are so sincere and convincing in this direct person-to-person situation that the effect of them is stronger than any tendency to suspend disbelief (hence naming them although I've told you almost nothing about their characters) Part of the production's effectiveness is that it makes the audience make instant and instinctive decisions, prey to emotion and manipulation. It is a show I would certainly recommend seeing, provided you are mobile and wear clothes suitable for a quite chilly venue when you go out of the usual playing area, so I am not going to tell you the main theme, but it is one that echoes newspaper headlines and raises important questions.

I gather from a conversation afterwards that some members of the cast found the press night audiences more difficult to win over to their character's point of view than the rather smaller audiences at the previews. I would love to know what would happened if the people who shared my opinions had gone past arguing and actually physically tried to stop things happening. Let me know if you find out.

Until 17th April 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton