Writer: Gabriele Uboldi
Director: Anna Ryder
Set back slightly from the tourist trap of Piccadilly, between the Circus and Green Park, St James’s Church is said to have been the favourite London church of Christopher Wren’s of all that he designed in the 17th century.
Its heritage, and its place in the present and future, are celebrated in a 12-minute audio play presented by the church in association with nearby Jermyn Street Theatre as part of Westminster Council’s Inside Out Festival.
While the audio play can be listened to anywhere, it is designed to be started by scanning a QR code in the church’s gardens. And it is there where you are assumed to be as the play’s narrator, Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, brings you in.
But rather than a geographically specific potted history that requires you to root to a particular spot, writer Gabriele Uboldi instead leans on the inspiring and meditative qualities of the location. Kemp-Sayfi invites us to imagine that we are back in the church’s early years, as either Wren or an admirer of his work. In the next breath, we are in the far future, with the church’s spire still visible above the waves of a flooded London and a model of St James’s as it is now in a museum dedicated to the fallen city.
It is a piece that wears its history lightly. Touched upon is the church’s original locale – at time of construction, it was in a field on the outskirts of London – and its wartime heritage, nearly destroyed by bombing but surviving to provide comfort and sanctuary still.
A variety of foreign visitors pepper Uboldi’s script, emphasising the effect the church has on congregation and tourists alike. Artist Mary Beale, buried at the church, makes a time-travelling appearance, from painting a prophetic picture of the church prior to its construction (replete with litter, mobile phones and aircraft overhead) to racing to the present in a black cab, helping Uboldi span the centuries with ease.
Director Anna Ryder occasionally brings in sound effects to reinforce the location – a church bell here, nearby traffic there – but, when listened to in situ, these are hardly necessary. Hidden St James’s is best experienced with the sounds of the church and its environs as a living sound bed.
One of the principles behind the piece is that a place is made from the stories of its people: after the Great Fire destroyed much of the city, Londoners’ tales of how the capital grew into something new. Uboldi’s warm, contemplative work takes that principle, and invites us to be a part of the city – and the church – around us. And in the charming location of St James’s little gardens, it is a pleasure to accept.
Continues until 31 August 2023