Bella Todd reviews the innovative audio-tour performance at Brighton Fringe from Access All Areas.
There’s quite some finale to this audio-tour performance by Access All Areas, a professional theatre and performance company for adults with learning disabilities. For an hour we have followed the seven performers closely through narrow Brighton streets. Now we watch from the vertiginous promenade as they mix with the bank holiday crowd on the beach. We hear their final lines, like the rest of the piece, via a prerecorded headphone soundtrack. It’s an epic moment, buried in the everyday.
One of the most exciting things about headphone theatre, from David Rosenberg’s genre-defining innovations in theatrical voyeurism to The Royal Court’s recent Lost in Theatre programme, is its ability to create an experience that’s simultaneously very public and intensely private. You can eavesdrop across geographical distances. You can (sort of) get inside someone else’s head. So it’s curious that this ultra-trendy form has, until now, been underexploited when it comes to communicating marginalised perspectives. Eye Queue Hear is a piece about finding your place and direction in life. It is also about navigating cities with a learning disability, and the slant this can put on urban life.
Originally inspired by the IQ test, and first performed around London’s Brick Lane, it’s propelled by the personalities and broken thoughts of the performers. (The number seven is significant. As a programme note reveals, in numerology seven is ‘the seeker, the thinker, the searcher of Truth… The 7 doesn’t take anything at face value – it is always trying to understand the underlying, hidden truths’.) Each carries a see-through plastic rucksack filled with real personal objects that at times become symbolic props.
The first thing we hear is a clinical voice asking standard IQ test sums, which set your brain spinning like a blindfolded child in a party game. Duly disorientated, we follow the performers out into the city with the word ‘equals’ ringing in our ears.
There’s a filmic quality and variety to Nick Llewellyn and Ciara Brennan’s direction: a widescreen moment against the façade of the old Hippodrome on Middle Street; close-ups on each performer as we cluster in an alley, where some neat breakdancing turns a street cleaner’s head. There’s also a mischievous side. At one point the performers peer into the window of the Coach House at the intrigued diners, confronting head on their recurring feeling of being stared at. Some thoughts, as they move through the city, are unwelcome and intrusive. Others put a beautifully surreal spin on the humdrum.
It’s a shame that funding hasn’t extended, for the company’s three runs in London, Brighton and Exeter, to re-recording the soundtrack for each city. Access All Areas had just one day in Brighton to identify a route and chop the existing Hackney soundtrack accordingly. The reference to a city farm is a conspicuous hangover, and there are a couple of extended pauses where the edit doesn’t quite tally. But the ambient sounds transfer easily.
There’s historical context, too. In a powerful sequence, the group respond to the work of Phillipe Pinel, the French physician who first classified mental disorder into four basic types (melancholia, mania, dementia, idiotism), and the Idiot’s Act of 1886, which can be thanked for bringing the word ‘imbecile’ into the mix. Four white squares of fabric are pegged onto a makeshift washing line, and four large crosses slashed on them with red pen. It’s at once evocative of political process (a vote?) and an act of violence. They hang for a moment before being taken down and joyfully danced with – to Jimmy Cliff’s ‘You Can Get It if You Really Try’.
One huge achievement of this meditative, mischievous, ambitious and exuberantly accessible piece is to bust out of the ‘disability arts’ ghetto and thrust itself under the passing public eye. Work like ‘Eye Queue Hear’ belongs at the very heart of festivals like the Brighton Fringe. As it progresses, it leaves its own trace on the city: a series of transparent coloured circles, representing seven different ways of seeing, that increase in size until they can be spotted on the beach from the promenade, glowing in the afternoon sun.
However intimately you feel you’ve come to know these performers by the end, you wouldn’t presume to feel anything so patronising as pride. But something does swell your heart as they turn to meet your applause across the crowded beach – a sense of hope as universal and contagious as the Jimmy Cliff song. The performers’ repeated question ‘Am I going in the right direction?’ is one we all ask. We’ll all get there eventually, ‘Eye Queue Hear’ suggests – and how dull life would be if we all took the same route.
Eye Queue Hear is performed by Dayo Koleosho, Jolene Sampson, Paul Christian, Cian Binchy, Housni Hassan, Imogen Roberts and Lee Philips, with further performances at Brighton Fringe on 1 June 1.45pm and 4.14pm. Access All Areas then take Eye Queue Hear to the Bikeshed Theatre, Exeter on 5-6 June. For more information please click on this link to visit their website