Babylon: A show review

‘Babylon is a show about kings and queens and revolutions. It’s about the things we love, the things we should hold tighter to every day. It’s a show full of folk music, of drinking and dancing, of singing with arms wrapped around strangers’ shoulders. Come raise a glass with us.’

Babylon images Copyright Old Joint Stock Pub and Theatre 2014
Babylon images Copyright Old Joint Stock Pub and Theatre 2014

I was looking for Folk music events back in February and noticed that there was an undefined show which the Old Joint Stock (OJS) had tweeted on Twitter. It was called Babylon by The Flanagan Collective. The words folk music, drinking, dancing and singing were involved. I thought, “I’m in! Why not? It ticks all the boxes,” hoping I hadn’t accidentally signed up to a workshop again.

The Old Joint Stock Pub and Theatre is a beautifully distinctive building with high ceilings and gilt cornicing. It has that lovely quality of being simultaneously grand and inviting. I got a drink in the pub before the show, still unsure what I was letting myself in for but open to a new experience. I sat reading my book and waited for the doors to open to the Club Room downstairs.

The club room was not exactly what I was expecting. I walked in and there were a couple of people sitting at tables with drinks. There were some very folkily-dressed people who I assumed to be very keen audience members. I wasn’t sure where the stage would be. I chose a seat in the corner near a few mandolins, a drum set and what I later discovered to be a Bouzouki..

The support acts (Blues guitarists) were surprising. This doesn’t usually happen at a play so I was, again, questioning what I’d come to see. Were we moving to a different venue after this? I didn’t know. Some actors from ‘Passchendaele,’ apparently, took a place next to me. I was eavesdropping, but it’s hard not to in such a small space! I’m surprised they made any money at the OJS because of its prime location and the fact you could only fit 50 people, if that, into this room. HOWEVER, the atmosphere was cosy, sociable and the play, as it unfolded, was engaging and all-consuming.

The story was based around a young girl called Hetty who wins a competition to become the Queen of England. All the audience got a rejection letter, Hetty received the winning letter. She stood up on an old luggage case to deliver her acceptance speech. They took pictures of her with members of “her public,” that being the audience. We already felt part of her story, which would become our story. We slowly see Hetty growing up. We are thrown through the chronology of her life a bit but never to the detriment of this story of revolution, of self-discovery, loss, being lost, love (always need a love interest), corruption, truth and courage. Her ability to recognise her mistakes is admirable. There’s another story of two brothers. Their relationship puts a spotlight on the community which is being broken down by a corrupt government, the price to be paid for freedom and when to fight for it.

The fluidity of the scene-changes in such a small space demonstrated the skill of the actors. They would move out of a scene to play an instrument whilst another actor comes into focus from the apparent wings.

The use of folk music was beautifully rousing and provocative of all the emotions the composer wished to convey. They involved the audience, too. It was very subtle, the way we were engaged. We all received musical instruments to play with throughout the interval; castanets, drumsticks and, what I later found out to be an egg shaker. We were all playing with them throughout the interval so that, by the time it came for us to be called upon to start a musical revolution, we took up arms. The sheer force of Ollie, the zealous revolutionary, (when the revolution started in a pub) meant that when he asked us would we stand and take up the cause, we all did. His eyes said, “you’re going to stand up and no other answer is acceptable.” Exactly the power one needs to make a public stand and an audience stand. Needless to say, I stood. They sang, we sang, they danced, we danced, they played instruments, we played instruments. It was absolutely brilliant.

The best part was perhaps the juxtaposition between the loud uproar of the changing politics to the simple, quiet moments between Ollie and Hetty, the moments when there was simple truth and quiet realisation of human emotion, the Beauty in action.

Post-Event: They said we could stay behind and there’d be music from the support artists. I spoke to the friendly actors and musicians after the show. They have been politicizing audiences in pubs around the country. Serena Manteghi reckoned if you did start a revolution you would start one in a pub. They have their own writer to write scripts with which the actors work and fit into different spaces. They were selling CDs, which can only be described as the soundtrack CDs, for The Beulah Band after the show and they ran out such was their popularity. One of the actors showed me a South American drum which I had thought was a box. It was a box, but it also had a snare inside. I played with it. I also played with the egg shaker whilst the Blues guitarist, Robert Lane, played his guitar and one of the actors played the mandolin. I was practically a collaborative artist! As I left to trot on home, down the steps, into the night, I saw the musicians putting their instruments into their van and I felt part of something very cool.

Jim Harbourne: Composer and performer in Beulah; composer and sound designer for Tortoise In A Nutshell
Ed Wren: Composer and performer in Beulah; co-artistic director of The River People
Serena Manteghi: Performer and co-creator of Some Small Love Story; performer with Belt Up Theatre
Conrad Bird: Front man of northern folk band Holy Moly & The Crackers
Joe Hufton: Director of The Bridge That Tom Built; associate artist for Belt Up Theatre
Dominic Allen: Writer and performer for The Bridge That Tom Built; co-artistic director of Belt Up Theatre
BABYLON was originally developed with The Fauconberg Arms, Derby Theatre and Greenwich Theatre across 2013.

Follow @BeulahBand and @FlanCol on Twitter