CHICKENSHED is a splendid theatre group based in Southgate, North London. It is everything a community theatre should be – and more besides.
It embraces all (young and old, disabled and abled, the socially disadvantaged and those with learning difficulties) within its gentle and kindly tentacles. It also provides educational courses and helps youngsters learn theatre skills. It is inspiring and just to spend ten minutes in its buildings – with kids nosily changing in Portakabins ahead of a performance – will enthuse any first-time visitor. Visceral.
Here is a company that is determined to give children, irrespective of social background and ethnicity, the chance to express themselves and show case talent that would otherwise lie dormant. Fantastic, especially given the challenging times we live in – financially and socially.
Chickenshed’s latest production is a bold one. Entitled Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow (words taken from Christin McVie’s 1970s hit with Fleetwood Mac, Don’t Stop), it embraces a cast of hundreds (I am not kidding you) and looks at the impact of climate change on our lives – in the past, now and in the future.
Despite the sombre subject, there is an overwhelming joy to the whole production. There is a spontaneity on stage that cannot help the viewer smile. People of all ages expressing themselves.
The musical looks at climate change through the eyes of fictional Oscar Buhari (Ashley Driver). He is a climate change installation artist, brought up in the North among the chimneys and smoke but who has travelled the world and seen the impact of climate change with his own eyes. His message is simple: he does not want the planet to die.
His commentary is the cement that holds a series of sets together, sets that combine performance art and songs that can be linked to climatic change, however tenuous. Mercy, Mercy Me (Marvin Gaye), Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell) and Don’t Stop.
The choreography (Michael Bossisse) is stunning throughout as the performers act out key climatic moments in the past – for example, Hurricane Katrina of 2005 – and give us a taste of what lies ahead of us. Flooding. Drought. Water rationing (already an issue in Cape Town). Water pollution. Climatic refugees is a term used throughout, powerful and effective. Climatic issues that threaten the cohesiveness of society, effectively demonstrated by a set entitled ‘beyond day zero’ where people are rationed water and sobering choices have to be made (should water rations be given to someone who is dying?).
The costumes and set design (William Fricker) are quite remarkable. The set where we are below the sea looking at an ecology ravaged by plastic and bottles while jelly fish dodge the detritus is visually powerful. As is the finale where a giant fish is constructed before our eyes – the work of Buhari. On occasion, the collective movement and dance of the cast is mesmerising. It is as if they are one, moving and breathing as one organism.
Intermittently, the cast’s exuberant acting is supported or broken up with stunning images – a woman standing on a mound surrounded by rampaging flood water or former President Bush (junior) peering out of the window of Air Force One like a rabbit caught in the headlights as he views the carnage down below caused by Hurricane Katrina (too little too late).
The singing is uneven (a couple of the young singers are outstanding) and the voices on stage are sometimes drowned out by the music (directed by Dave Carey) or are not commanding enough. But these are minor criticisms in what is a refreshing production. This is climatic change, expressed through the eyes of artists, not scientists. In places, quite magical.
Buhari’s message? That we all can – and should – do our little bit to arrest the pace of climatic change. Before it is too late.
As the words of Big Yellow Taxi state: ‘Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone/They paved paradise/Put up a parking lot.’
Apart from its focus on one of the key issues of our time, the beauty of Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow is the joy it gives those who perform in it. Confirmation of the key role community theatres such as Chickenshed play in providing some of the sticking plaster that holds society together.