There isn’t, comparatively speaking, a whole lot that goes on in terms of theatre that’s off the beaten path in my own home town of Wimbledon. There’s the ATG-operated New Wimbledon Theatre, mostly, when out of panto season, a receiving house for touring productions that can advertise themselves as “coming back to London for one week only” and technically be correct, and the Polka Theatre with its programmes geared at children. But if it’s some decent smaller-scale, so-called ‘off West End’ productions I’m after, I would ordinarily head off to the Tube to somewhere in Camden, Southwark or Islington (there are five theatres that I know of within walking distance of Highbury Corner, six if you choose to count the Rosemary Branch, though it is quite a walk!), rather than stroll into Wimbledon town centre.
The New Wimbledon Studio has been going since 1994, but I’ve never had cause to go to it, which is rather shameful as a) I’ve seen a number of shows at the main theatre next door and b) I used to work in a corporate office one minute’s walk from the studio for nearly two years. So here comes the Illuminate Festival to correct a wrong, and, judging by this launch party, there’s a wide range of live events of decent quality to look forward to over the next few weeks.
The launch event’s sample performances focused mostly on the music based performances; not, I hasten to add, musical theatre, at least not in the conventional West End/Broadway style. It prompted Luke Courtier (‘Lunch’, 6th May, 7:45pm; 7th May, 2:45pm and 7:45pm) to quip that he was tempting fate, being the third man in succession to pick up a guitar and strum it. ‘Lunch’ was last seen at the Vault Festival and seems to be great fun, taking the form of observational comedy, finding hilarity in the relatively mundane.
There’s also ‘alternative folk’, from LEAO (‘LEAO and Friends’, 8th May at 7:45pm) which, in the way it was presented here, sounded relaxing and easy-going, even if some of the lyrics were deep and thought-provoking. ‘LightBox’ (15th and 22nd May, 7:45pm) aims to sample new work in bitesize chunks; the section performed at the launch event included both original songwriting and cover versions of existing material. Immersive theatre from Omar & Lee brought a very different sort of humour (‘We Are All Idiots’, 26th and 27th May, 7:15pm); the excerpt appeared misogynistic at surface level but was, we were assured, more of a statement about what’s wrong with the world.
Whilst most of my time during post-launch drinks involved talking with cast and creatives about what’s happening in the industry on a general level, and what good shows are on at the moment (I found nobody that disagreed with my awarding 5 stars to ‘In The Heights’ last year), there’s certainly something for everyone in an eclectic range of performances. And everyone means everyone – there’s ‘Baby Bulbs’ (14th, 21st and 28th May, 11:30am), shows for children, the first two geared at under 5s, the third at over 5s, and ‘Every 7 Years’ (13th May, 7:45pm; 14th May, 2:45pm and 7.45pm), which seemed to me to be rather like the Up Series, except this one is about just two people, and goes right the way up (sorry) to 84 years of age.
As Jordan Ginger kindly pitched his new play to me both before and after the launch performances proper, I’ll make it worth his while mentioning ‘Bishop’s Grove’ (16th and 17th May, 8:30pm), a dark comedy two-hander set in Wiltshire where people are disappearing with no rational explanation. This leaves the duo taking a hard look at their own lives and life in general. For my part, I’m already scheduled to see ‘Rounds’ (18th and 19th May, 7:15pm) and ‘I’m Just Here To Buy Soy Sauce’ (18th and 19th May, 8:30pm). I’m told this festival, only in its second year, is significantly bigger than it was last year, and from the works I was introduced to one way or another, there’s no reason why subsequent seasons shouldn’t continue to build on the foundations laid in both 2015 and 2016.
By Chris Omaweng