Off the Wall and into the theatre

The lights in the theatre went down and the evening’s performance of In a Thousand Pieces drew to a close. The audience, aware that fifty-five minutes of harrowing and powerful theatre on the harshness of the British sex trade and the extent of people’s ignorance had come to an end, clapped their hands in appreciation of a show that combined intense physicality with unnerving humour.

The lights came back on. There they were, our three polish immigrant girls, stood frozen in the same position as before the blackness. The clapping stopped and the silence began. Who would leave first? I asked myself; were we even supposed to leave now? After about fifteen seconds – a mixture of quizzical shuffling and reverential silence – people at the back began to leave. Eventually we followed the now departing crowd, and glancing back I noticed that not one lip had shifted, not a hair had moved. They stood like statues as the audience turned their backs and went.

This gives you an idea of the type of drama that the North Wall Arts Centre brings to Oxford. Lying a couple of miles outside of Oxford centre in Summertown, the theatre opened in 2007, yet only really took off last year. Since then it has taken on a very exciting and significant role in the cultural landscape of Oxford. Putting on shows not large enough to sustain an audience at the Playhouse, yet too small for the Burton Taylor and others, this remarkable centre sits somewhere in the middle, offering visitors a vibrant programme of work alternative to the Oxford mainstream of, on the one hand, popular yet pricy professional shows, and, on the other, hit-and-miss student drama.

The Paper Birds, for example, are a theatre company plucked out of University obscurity and propelled onto the national stage. Endorsement from Willy Russell, sell-out Edinburgh fringe stints and Amnesty awards have followed. Dan Dason, director of programming, says ‘we aim to deliver an ambitious programme that will attract a wide audience, but with young people at its heart. For me the key to achieving this is by offering a diversity of the highest quality work – full of skill, daring, innovation and depth; work that takes risks and pushes boundaries, that thrills, challenges, moves, enlightens and entertains. Fundementally though, I want work that excites me. If it doesn’t do that why should an audience like it?’

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And it is not simply audiences that are excited by what North Wall has to offer. Artistic director of the company, Jemma Mcdonnel told me, ‘When we were planning this tour and told people we’d be at the North Wall, they were impressed. Its reputation in the industry is very good’.

North Wall has also made an impact for its innovative design. The centre has won a number of accolades, including a national award from the Royal Association of British Architects. I must confess that when I heard that the building housing the main drama studio was once a Victorian swimming baths, worried images filled my head of a long and thin room, gutted out and clinical. I realised walking into the main auditorium that my fears were unfounded, and probably unfairly based on a preconceived idea of what my local ramshackle pool would look like as a theatre. It is, in the words of one performer, ‘absolutely stunning’. What hits you instantly is the shape of the room which is narrow and rectangular, yet feels very intimate due to the proximity of the upper balconies and slightly raised seating at the sides. The use of wood is also interesting, especially the great emphasis on beams in the ceiling. It feels warm, natural and inviting, yet the palate of light browns, greys and terracotta simultaneously creates a slightly sombre feel. For a play with both playful and serious elements to it like In a Thousand pieces the space worked well.

‘Theatres should feel special’ says Danson, ‘not for architectural reasons or the decor, but because they are spaces of possibility, spaces where unique experiences can take place. It is after all one of the few if not the only remaining places where we come together with strangers to stare at other strangers often doing things that we wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to watch, laugh or cry at.’ It is for this reason that he picks shows that engage the audience in different ways. Over the next few weeks, a visit to North Wall a must for Oxford’s drama lovers to see work ranging from Flhip-Flhop, which combines elements of hip-hop with witty dialogue, to Edinburgh Fringe First Award winning Paperweight, an (almost) silent comedy of surprising tenderness about two men trapped in a mindless office. For the musically minded, jazz and classical happily cohabit the schedule with performances by the Brodsky Quartet and BBC Jazz award winning saxophonist Julian Siegel.

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Whenever I told fellow students I was planning to write this article, the responses largely fell into two categories: either they had heard about the great work that goes on but had never gone, or simply did not know about it. Having visited the centre, I must say Oxford, you are missing out! A £5 concession for students and a fifteen minute bike ride are small price to pay for alternative drama of the highest calibre in a setting which can be described in one word: special.

Want to find out more? Visit www.thenorthwall.com for detailed listings and information about the theatre.