Pros: An enjoyable and relevant piece of theatre, especially for Battersea locals.
Cons: The staging lacks clarity.
Although entirely on the wrong side of the river for my liking, I never mind taking a trip to Theatre503 in Battersea. It’s a friendly theatre-above-a-pub with good legroom and challenging, relevant programming. Lightbox Theatre’s The Air Around Us fits that bill, particularly for locals, since it’s a spinoff from the company’s earlier production Battersea Odyssey. For that project, 120 inhabitants told Lightbox about their lives in Battersea.
George Cresswell’s story stood out from the rest, and has now been turned into a separate play, delivered verbatim. In The Air Around Us the audience gets to peek into Cresswell’s life, from his early memories as a dirt poor child living through the Second World War, to joining the RAF, starting a family and buying his own house.
Cresswell’s words are presented to the audience in two ways: about half is the original recording of Cresswell telling his own story, the other half is a transcript spoken by actor Liam Smith. The upside of this arrangement is that the variety makes the show more engaging, and hearing Cresswell’s own voice increases both the authenticity and the emotional impact of the experience.
I was however not entirely convinced of the thinking behind Smith’s performance, nor it’s slightly confusing staging. At first he simply reads from the pages scattered around the stage, but later on he tells bits by heart, talks over the tape or seemingly recalls passages buried somewhere deep in his memory. While it certainly beats watching someone read from a script for 45 minutes, it also suggests that Smith is not just an actor telling Cresswell’s story, but rather an actor playing a character. As a result, I spent a good ten minutes trying to figure out who he was meant to be (an estranged son? A younger Cresswell? Cresswell with Alzheimer’s?), getting sucked into increasingly David Lynch-ian scenarios.
The set, too, suggests there’s more to the play: the stage is strewn with clothes, knick-knacks and bits of paper. In other words, it looks like a crime scene and frustratingly, we never find out why (although admittedly it’s also entirely possible that I just read way too much into everything).
These are relatively minor criticisms though, because Cresswell’s story is plenty interesting in itself. On the one hand, it’s a strangely intimate experience, so intimate it’s almost uncomfortable even. On the other hand, through Creswell’s memories we also see the bigger picture: the consequences of gentrification, the increasing individualism in society and how our lives are shaped by the places we live in. All in all it’s a beautiful and charming piece of theatre, and I certainly wouldn’t object to Lightbox running a similar project in my area. Until then, I’ll have to stick with making up stories about people on the bus myself…
Words: George Cresswell
Director: Emma Faulkner
Producer: Lightbox Theatre
Booking Until: This show has now completed its run.