Neil Haigh, Grace Felstead (contributing)
The Melville Building, Royal William Yard
A brave, if confused and admittedly imperfect, history of Plymouth said to be 'a stomp' from 1961 to the present day combines storytelling, interaction, song and dance.
Set in an atmospheric old warehouse in the trendy Royal William Yard—the hoped-for venue of the now derelict eponymous Civic Centre being bureaucratically impossible—the Arts Council England-funded community project FUSE is triumphant in its parts, less so in cohesion.
The promenade production is based around Sylvia (Barbican Theatre’s CEO Sheila Snellgrove), the 14th floor tea trolley lady’s story dispensing wise words, wry asides and marshmallows as she guides the audience from room to partitioned space.
There’s fascinating old footage of the rebuilding of Plymouth (but sadly somewhat obscured by dancers who deserve all one’s attention), a visit to the lofty restaurant complete with opening night cold food, memories of the falcon and feather-spattered desks, routine, files and a cactus. And Sir Francis Drake (Richard Bailey) seemingly doomed to wander the corridors in search of a permit.
Some 65+ dancers and the Devonport Park Community Choir, a bugler, placard-waving demonstrators and a roll call of pubs that are no more wind around and reflect Sylvia’s retelling of the Abercrombie building at its height, its busy-ness, its ability to flex in stormy conditions, its redundancy, and its fall from lofty flagship status.
Internationally acclaimed artists and choreographers Alleyne Dance have worked with local companies Movers & Shakers, Young Rebels, Open Circle, Chorus, Barbican Theatre’s COMPANY b Dance and Dance producing pieces springing from oral histories and showcasing styles such as Flamenco, Bharatanatyam, hip hop, ballroom, African and contemporary dance.
There is no doubt the dance is tremendous but mostly combative and often at odds with the prevailing mood and the narrative lost as sympathisers break to glaring and martial arts-esque entwinings roiling around a bereft Sylvia.
The march through time is assisted by occasional Top 10 soundtrack, although some costuming and music is rooted in the '40s and '50s; and writer Neil Haigh extends ‘Civic’ from the corporation’s iconic headquarters to include council workers—some real and some fictional—and then onwards to lose its way around the dockyard, Albert Gate, Devonport environs and myriad unspecific protests, to pass inexplicable lobster pots to nudge up to a polemic on being kind and giving as much as one can.
But, at face value, the collaboration of Plymothians telling their stories, community groups, local performers and guest choreographers, under the guidance of Lead Practitioner and Practitioner Suzie West, is interesting and ambitious. Its parts pay off—the dance and live music are excellent, the ‘play’ poignant—but the whole is unwieldy.
Reviewer: Karen Bussell