Writer: Jennifer Farmer (City Final),
Directors: Leon Phillips, Naomi Wood, Paul O’Donnell, Reena Jaisiah, Claire Proctor, Natalie Russo (City Final), Oliver Scott (Retold)
Choreographer: Olver Scott (Retold)
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The 1950s was a big decade in Coventry’s history. Much of the city, including its historic St Michael’s Cathedral, most of its industrial capacity and over 4000 homes, was flattened in November 1940 during the Coventry Blitz. After the war, the city began to rebuild under the Gibson Plan, which introduced a new kind of traffic-free, pedestrianised shopping to the city, the first such in Europe. In addition, such iconic landmarks as Basil Spence’s new cathedral (opened in 1962), the new Belgrade Theatre (Britain’s first purpose-built civic theatre, opened in 1958) and the grand headquarters of the local newspaper, the Coventry Evening Telegraph building, opened in 1959 were built. As the city rebuilt itself physically, it also grew internationally, twinning with Dresden and becoming the “city of peace and reconciliation”.
The Coventry Evening Telegraph was founded by William Isaac, later Baron, Iliffe in 1891. Its main headquarters, the venue for this week’s celebration of the paper, closed in 2012 as the paper moved to new premises, ultimately changing to morning publication and its name to the Coventry Telegraph. Since then, the building has housed a pop-up exhibition which has now closed as the site is further redeveloped.
In 1965, The Belgrade founded the first Theatre in Education initiative, a concept that grew and spread far and wide. Since then, it has maintained strong community links with groups in the city of all ages and backgrounds.
As part of the preparations for its tenure as City of Culture in 2021, the Belgrade, in partnership with Mercurial Theatre, has produced Read All About It, a celebration of the last 60 years or so in Coventry, seen through the lens of the paper coverage.
Read All About It consists of two separate and immersive performances in the old Evening Telegraph building. In City Final, the audience plays the part of the invited audience to the building’s opening in 1959. Various parts of the building are used by nine groups led by the Belgrade’s Community and Education team to produce vignettes based on events and stories covered by the paper, while also underlining the qualities needed to serve the community and to tell its stories. Groups of audience members are led through the building by guides in the rôles of employees of the building to witness the stories. And so we see recreations of the city’s experiences of racism, a plane crash in Willenhall, the miners’ strike in 1984, a tragic death in custody of a young black man, and the discovery of a young man in Pool Meadow Bus Station with apparently no recollection of who he is or why he’s there, all provided in different parts of the building by a predominantly young community cast. Along the way, we are treated to acting, dancing, singing and multimedia projections and sounds put together very professionally. Yes, there are occasional stumbles, but that hardly matters: the stories are being told are done so with charm and wit. If one were to make a criticism of the choice of stories to cover, one might note that many feel angry about injustice – surely part of a local paper’s job – but maybe lacking in feelgood stories, with the possible exception of the whimsical response to the boy found in Pool Meadow, that will undoubtedly have been told.
Mercurial Dance, which aims to produce immersive, captivating and inspirational performances, has produced the second performance, Retold. Six young dancers and local singer-songwriter, Lucy Anne Sale, tell the story in cabaret style of how a newspaper is built from stories, announcements, classified ads. This is partly rehearsed contemporary dance and partly improvisation in response to their discussions with audience members and their stories, linking witty spoken word and dance movement; on this occasion, the inspiration included memories of guarding the FA Cup when it was in town and of visiting a local video hire shop in changing times. The performers, under the direction of Oliver Scott, are personable and talented, bringing wit, immediacy and a freshness to the performance.
In the run-up to 2021, the Belgrade has again demonstrated its commitment to producing worthwhile community theatre, offering a voice, as does, we are led to believe, the Coventry Telegraph, to all in the community.
Runs Until 14 July 2018 | Image: Nicola Young