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The People Show 121 - The Detective Show


Rumours of The People Show's death have been exaggerated. The UK's 
veteran experimental live-art troupe's last appearance in Edinburgh may 
have been with People Show 114: The Obituary Show, but, as the arrival 
in town of People Show 121: The Detective Show, should prove beyond a 
shadow of a doubt, the company who have helped to define 1960s 
counter-cultural frolics for the best part of fifty years are very much 
alive and kicking. Even better, The Detective Show finds the company 
getting back to The People Show's original make-shift roots which a 
million and one similarly inclined latter-day ensembles are similarly 
tapping in to.

“We wanted to get back to doing a show in the way that we did when we 
first started out,” says Mark Long, who has been with The People Show 
since the start. “We didn't get into a theatre for eight years, and 
travelling round we had to be able to get everything for the show in a 
couple of suitcases which you could carry onto a train.

“We also wanted to get back to the sort of shows we’d made about people 
who were either dead or alive, like Charlie Parker and Chet Baker, so 
we drew up a shortlist, and the one name we came up with was Agatha 
Christie. The second name on the list was Hedy Lamarr. Now, everyone 
has an opinion on Agatha Christie, so then we started thinking about a 
street in Hampstead called Lawn Road. Now in Lawn Road there's a block 
of flats designed by a German, which is called the Isokon building, 
which was an early experiment in communal living. It was based around 
the idea that people shouldn't spend all the hours cooking, so there 
were no kitchens in the flats, but a public restaurant instead. One of 
the people who lived in these flats was Agatha Christie, as did as 
well, it turns out, my mother.”

Leaving aside the fact that the designer of the Isokon was actually 
ex-pat Canadian architect Wells Coates who designed the Isokon, which 
went up between 1933 and 1934, rather than a German, such a set of 
associations and connections goes some way to explaining The People 
Show ethos. Such an ethos was founded in a similarly random fashion.

Long before Battersea Arts Centre, Arches Live, the Forest Fringe and 
Summerhall, all five original members of The People Show could be found 
occupying studio spaces in the Abbey Arts Centre. This 
still-functioning place of worship in New Barnet was then owned by art 
dealer William Ohly, who let out the cells to artists. With poet and 
counter-cultural polymath Jeff Nuttall in retreat at the Abbey and with 
an event to organise for jazz composer Mike Westbrook at the 1966 
Notting Hill Gate Festival, panic provoked him to knock on his 
neighbours doors. Along with Nuttall, Syd Palmer, John Dod Darling, 
Laura Gilbert and Long joined forces. After Notting Hill, the group 
decided to stick together, and, through Nuttall, set up shop in the 
grimy basement of Better Books, the Charing Cross Road seat of learning 
then being run by sound poet Bob Cobbing.

“Better Books was the only venue that could put that sort of work on,” 
Long says of the collectively devised chaos with which The People Show 
challenged perceptions of what was and wasn't theatre. “We ran the 
first one on a Monday and Tuesday in December and called it The People 
Show. The basement held about forty or fifty people, and was full both 
nights. Then we did another one two weeks later, then did one every few 
weeks.”

All this is outlined with magnificent grumpiness in Nuttall's 
Performance Art Memoirs, published in 1979. Reading it today, while The 
People Show have yet to join the establishment, Nuttall's book now 
reads both as a crucial document of its time and an essential guidebook 
for today's crop of similarly minded performance troupes working 
outside the mainstream.

The People Show became Edinburgh regulars in the early days of the 
Traverse Theatre, and played both the Royal Court and Joan Littlewood's 
Theatre Royal Stratford East. Luminaries who have passed through The 
People Show's ranks have included film-maker Mike Figgis, while the 
company's current ensemble includes People Show veterans, musician 
George Khan and lighting designer Chahine Yavroyan alongside relative 
rookies Gareth Brierley, Sadie Cook, Fiona Creese and Jessica Worrall.

It is this sense of renewal, one suspects, that keeps The People Show 
going. How, though, does one become a member? Are there People Show 
recruitment drives, and if so, what sort of vetting process is involved 
to meet what is clearly a stringent set of criteria?

“That's a very good question,” says Long, “because we don't go looking 
for people. They tend to find us. It tends to be people we meet if 
we're working in universities, and who do some kind of work experience 
with us. Then one day you're sitting with someone and you suddenly 
realise what's happened and say, 'Oh, you're in The People Show now'.

“But new members take one or two shows to get it. We don't tell people 
what to do. That's not our strength. So, you might not be a lighting 
designer, but comments on the lighting design from everyone are 
crucial. It sounds incredibly simple, but sometimes it isn't. Three 
people in The Detective Show are very time-served People Show 
performers, so they know how it works, so there is an intimacy and a 
knowledge there. Another thing about our group is that you have to 
learn to be horrible to people. If someone's doing something that's a 
piece of crap, you have to tell them. New people don't always get that 
straight away, but they need to tell us as well, to make sure what 
we're doing isn't just about our egos.”

Despite this, Long is fully aware of The People Show's place in the 
scheme of things.

“When you're part of a scene, you're nor even aware that it's going 
on,” he observes, “but now The People Show have become part of this 
archive in an exhibition about Better Books. I look back at that time 
with pride, and it's such an arrogant thing to say, buy when I see the 
phrase site-specific, we were doing it first. Of course, as with 
anything that foes on this long, there are periods of tension and 
difficulty, and the People Show has taken me round the world. I 
certainly didn't think that would happen when we were in Better Books.”

As for the future, Long is optimistic.

“We go in and out of fashion,” he says, but just now there's a really 
good feeling with us. We're embarking on possibilities of being able to 
do big shows again without needing grants, and we may be doing a 
co-production with a main house theatre.”

If such a move sounds counter to the prevailing spirit of the People 
Show, think again.

“People still think of us as anarchic and mad,” Long says, “which is an 
idea I like, but it's not true. To look that anarchic and make it seem 
like what we do is a piece of p*** is actually very hard work.”

The People Show 121: The Detective Show, Assembly George Square, August 
1-2th, 7.30pm
www.assemblyfestival.com
The Herald, July 26th 2012

ends

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