Writer: Linda Wilkinson
Director: PK Taylor
London’s Bankside is in the middle of a decades-long effort at shrugging on a new coat of glass and steel, aimed at modernising itself and using its old brick and winding streets as accents and accessories rather than core features. It’s an uneven development – some changes have undeniably wiped out chunks of character from the area, and heritage fans bemoan rampant façadism which pays lip-service to those wishing to retain the unique feel of this historic part of London. Linda Wilkinson’s new Ghosts on a Wire reminds us well that what we see now in the area is the result of years of dense industrialisation and evolution in the built environment – the factory walls and shifted streets we retain as façades and pathways to new offices are largely only in place today because the communities that once lived here were pushed out in the name of progress centuries ago.
The irony of watching this in the arches of the railway that was part of one of the first big clearance projects in the borough should not be lost on the audience too.
Well researched, the play concerns the human, social and environmental cost of the development of the Pioneer Power Station at Bankside’s Meredith Wharf (now known as the Tate Modern gallery) – questioning what it is that we should try and protect and conserve. It covers the political push to build the “leviathan”, the community impact on those whose businesses and homes would be destroyed, the environmental impact, and hints at some of the key figures who made Southwark and Bankside a celebrated area. It could be a fascinating look at local history with a national importance. But its presentation here means we need to push through a lot of extraneous material – some of it quite bizarre and misplaced – to get to the point, and when we get there, that point is ill-defined.
It begins quietly, with some very dry observations in 1817 about the theology of electricity and progress between Mary Shelley (she of Frankenstein fame), Michael Faraday and William Blake. Time then shifts to 1888 Bankside when the power station is being planned. There we see a social reformer (Octavia Hill, later founder of the National Trust, and also the energy behind Bankside’s most attractive group of houses at Redcross Way), an MP, publicans and workers. Shelley, Blake and Faraday reappear throughout as ghosts. Seeing these varied perspectives is valued, but the linking passages between them are difficult.
The confusing ghost material could be cut totally with no ill effect. It’s a lot of talking for no gain – and muddies a good story of Bankside’s community history. Apart from this, two episodes in particular are overweighted, overindulged and subtract from the play. In one, a trio of men sip wine and bray about the poor people they despise. These boorish leaders of the country come across as bad caricatures of rah-rah modern Tories rather than an attempt to understand the forces driving industrial and social change. The other is a seance which is so odd it feels embarrassing to watch. The campaigning messaging for clean energy is fair enough, but feels anachronistic (coal was the leading electricity technology at the time).
To give it its due, it is at points an elegant example of NIMBYism. The social and human cost is clear – and the arguments presented by the locals against the station are well, and convincingly, argued rather than being based in petulance against necessary progress.
There’s too many competing elements in this for it to land its punches. As a history piece, it’s constrained by being politicised. As a social or political argument it doesn’t engage with the opposite side enough (electricity as a net social benefit, coal as a necessary evil to reach that benefit, even considering the costs to the local area). As a spiritual or ghost story it presents them as too everyday and inconsequential to feel extraordinary.
Bankside and Southwark have some of London’s best history. Forget about the royalty and political nonsense the rest of London is linked to, this is an industrial heartland with real communities and dramatic stories. It’s great to see some of this on stage, but it’s a shame it’s obscured by the extra material that adds little.
Runs until 8 October 2022