Directors: Matthew Dunster and Jon Bausor
The best thing about Arrival, a promenade experience through the streets of Dockland’s Silvertown, is seeing Little Amal, the 11.5 foot tall puppet, who has walked 8,000 km from Syria, symbolising the journeys of child refugees. As she guides a group of 100 or so people from an urban wasteland to the old docks the walk feel like a pilgrimage and it is devastatingly chastening. Blinking her sad eyes, she looks at us, questioning.
The rest of Arrival, a celebration of the history and diversity of the Royal Docks, is inventive but the sheer amount of people in the audience means that some views are blocked and that there is a fair amount of time spent waiting around for the next event to happen. One long part is set in the grounds of Millennium Mills, a desolate building that miraculously has not been pulled down or turned into luxury apartments, but only those in the front rows of the audience can see what’s happening. The rest of the spectators loiter around awaiting the walk to begin again.
Arrival starts well, however, and wearing headphones the audience is led back to the mid 1990s when the Britannia Housing Estate was built. This was a period of hope brought on by the promises of New Labour, when it really did seem as if things could only get better. As the audience watch youngsters play around a shipping container, rave music plays through the headphones capturing that optimism and excitement.
But the audience is taken further back. Walking down a street, it looks as if there is a wartime party going on, with people seemingly dancing atop parked cars. The energy is infectious but then the sirens sound. By chance, a plane ascends from London City Airport and it appears ready to drop its bombs as if it is The Blitz again when Hitler targeted this part of the East End.
But more than the performances – there is beatboxing, drumming and a film too – the real star is Silvertown itself. In every direction the red lights of cranes decorate the sky like it’s Christmas time, with the cable cars of the Emirates Air Line making it an animated display. The view from the temporary pontoon in the shadow of the vast Excel Centre is beautiful and even the trains on their concrete flyovers look different under this new scrutiny.
While Arrival succeeds in showing the sense of community in the area, now and in the past, as everyone has to wear headphones, cut off from friends and strangers alike, there is no similar community forged in the audience. The technology works wonderfully, but the experience is a coolly solitary one.
Runs until 23 October 2021. Little Amal appeared on 22 October only.