Recently I joined the delightful Nelly Balazs for a wander around the legal and illegal street artwork in Camden Town.
Before the tour I have been interested in street art for a while, taking photographs in Hackney Wick, the skateboarding space on the South Bank, and the Leake Street graffiti tunnel in Waterloo. Of the artists themselves and the ethos behind their work I knew very little.
Balazs is a photographer, facilitator and curator who works closely with artists from around the world, finding legal surfaces for them to paint and arranging partnerships with suppliers to reduce the costs involved in creating a work (which can run into thousands for a full wall piece).
Her vision is to add value to real estate by brightening up outside surfaces with art, and we saw some of the work she has collaborated on as we progressed through the streets behind Camden High Street.
For me, as a detached observer, there is a conflict between the commercialization of what was originally a counter-culture expression of graffiti tags and politicized slogans. Balazs explained that legal surface artwork avoids political comment to protect those who own the space.
Respect between artists was also discussed – we looked at Bambi’s Amy Winehouse (illegally painted) which originally showed the singer with closed eyes but now has a companion stencil by a local artist, Morganico, now deceased, who altered the eyes to a disconcerting stare. The local connection between the second artist and Winehouse makes the almost-merging of the two works acceptable.
En route, we heard about the conflict between old school graffiti artists and wealthy artists who treat it as a successful business. The most obvious example of this is Banksy (whose artwork on the side of a private house is no longer visible here, having been painted over by the owners), who is an anonymous millionaire known for his publicity stunts.
Balazs seeks out artists of quality for presentations in her festivals and use of the spaces she facilitates, inviting them to participate and seeding collaborations. We also discussed the reach of social media (particularly Instagram) and noted that many artworks include these tags.
We noted that many pieces showed vandalism from graffiti tags, which is a shame: in some cases, the artist will return to repair their work, but in others new artworks will utilise the space.
Part of the joy of visiting these spaces, to me, is seeing that juxtaposition of styles, whether the sleek presentation of a piece made to last, a piece of fading commercial art, or a witty piece of traditional graffiti.
The range of work on display in a relatively short space here is interesting in itself, and with many legal spaces constantly changing with transient works, Camden repays repeat visits.
I would recommend this walk which I booked through Funzing (reasonably priced at £15, minus £5 as it was my first event booked through this platform). It ran approximately 1 hr 50 and started and ended in close proximity to Camden Town tube station.
Welcome to a new, occasional, feature showcasing and celebrating the most interesting fringe venues I have visited across London. If you would like your theatre represented here, please let me know, and if I haven’t already been to see you, I will make it my mission to do so.
The first of my Fringe Focus features takes me to Latimer Road in West London and to The Playground Theatre. I asked artistic directors Anthony Biggs and Peter Tate to answer some questions on this small and flexible space, which I visited earlier this year to see My Brother’s Keeper.
Interview with Anthony Biggs (AB) and Peter Tate (PT)
The Playground started life as a bus garage on an industrial estate. What made you see its potential?
AB: The building has a really wonderful atmosphere. Simon McBurney from Complicite commented on this when he worked here. The space is so unexpected and inviting. It is a place where artists instantly feel at home. There is no other theatre in the immediate area, and there is a large local audience base.
PT: I literally had a gut feeling when I walked into the empty space. I felt that the space was already creative and had a very good energy.
The programming has been very eclectic and challenging, yet accessible. What plans do you have to reach both the discerning and adventurous theatre-goer, andthe North Kensington locals?
AB: We are positioned in a very diverse area, surrounded by expensive residential properties, large housing estates including Grenfell, commercial developments such as White City Place and Westfield, the Imperial College campus, Wormwood Scrubs prison. We have a huge potential audience on our doorstep and reaching out to them is our first priority as a local theatre.
PT: As you say our programming is eclectic. There are local issues that are a very strong thread through our community like the appalling Grenfell fire that brought our community together and wiped away whatever social divides existed. Last year we did two projects that were around this issue – Shirleymander based on Shirley Porter, the Tesco heiress, who undertook social cleansing when she was leader of Westminster Council; and Dictating to the Estate, a verbatim piece based on the transcripts between residents of Grenfell and the council. We intend to bring the latter back next year in a fuller production.
What is the USP of The Playground Theatre?
AB: We aim to be the heart of our community, where artists and audiences can celebrate bold and imaginative storytelling from around the world.
PT: Work that challenges both the artists and consequently the audience, and that has a deep resonance to the world we live in now.
You have playing cards instead of traditional theatre tickets. Does this mean a tripto The Playground is a game of chance and adventure?
AB: Every time you step through the doors of The Playground, the space will be different. We actively programme work that will transform our space and give our audiences a new experience.
PT: One can never hope to please everyone, or even should attempt to. One has to commit to the work and do it fully, leaving no stone unturned.
What is in store for audiences over the next few years? Where do you see The Playground fitting into a crowded and diverse London fringe scene?
AB: We love collaborating, so expect to see shows mixing a range of art forms, from rap music to fine art, that defy traditional description. International stars will rub shoulders with local artists and members of our community to create exciting and diverse theatre. Expect stories that reflect all areas of our community, that celebrate our culture and tackle the big issues. However crowded the Fringe is, The Playground is unique because our local community is unique. We welcome all artists who want to create work with us, and we look forward to building relationships with friends in other theatres.
PT: Personally, as an audience member, I come to a place that has great possibility to transform, to challenge, to make people think. I believe we have a few productions in the next year that will do this.
The theatre doubles as rehearsal space – have your creatives and actors found the stage and room a fertile ground for inspiration and innovation?
AB: Many leading companies and artists have created work at The Playground. It feels like an engine room for creativity. The more open we are to innovation, the more exciting the theatre we create.
PT: I have had the building for twenty years and set it up as a creative hub for artists to explore the unique voice within each and every one of us. The space has inspired artists such as Simon McBurney, Rufus Norris, the Polish director Henryk Branowski, the Japanese director Hideki Noda, plus countless other artists both known and emerging.
As an audience member, you notice the frequent train sound as an additionalaspect of The Playground sound space. Have you been able to utilise this as a positive force?
AB: It gives the space another dimension and seems to add rather than distract from performances. Unlike some theatres which have the trains running overhead, the tracks run behind The Playground so we get the sound without the vibration. It’s part of our lives and it is part of our community’s lives.
PT: I don’t think that we have consciously incorporated it, but accepted it for what it is – another ambient sound that exists in so many theatres that can’t afford total sound proofing.
What are the future plans for the cafe? It’s a really friendly place with free wi-fi and an interesting food and drink menu. What will make this a must for a foodie in the area?
AB: Our daily menu is created by The Grocer on Elgin, and the delicious cakes and brownies are made by Sally Clarke, both of whom are local businesses. We want to celebrate the rich and diverse culture of the area, and over the next few months we will be adding new dishes created by some of our wonderful local chefs. As a theatre café we often have play readings, discussions, parties etc happening in the space.
PT: It is an evolving process and we now manage it. The level of food has improved over the last few months by incorporating Sally Clarke’s cakes and quiches, and the food from The Grocer on Elgin. This has led to more customers, certainly during the day.
Finally, the theatre currently seeks financial support to keep evolving. What can audiences and creatives do to put this fab new theatre firmly on the map?
AB: The best way to support us is to come to The Playground, and encourage your friends and family too. You can engage with us on social media: we love to hear from you. If you have any spare time you can help us by volunteering as part of our front of house team, or perhaps on one of our many outreach projects with local community groups. Running a theatre is expensive and donations of any amount are always welcome. You can do this in person or via our website. We also run a membership scheme which gives you priority booking and access to special events. We are always keen to develop other ways of engaging with our community, and if you have an idea of how you can support us then please let us know.
PT: We are now garnering support for a lot of the outreach work that we do (which is led by my co-Artistic Director Anthony Biggs). By supporting us, as a theatre, the very important work that we are doing in our community will help us expand our current programmes in those areas – like the work we do with the survivors of Grenfell and the Well Read programme at St Charles Hospital’s psychiatric department.
My own observations on The Playground
I found The Playground an interesting and friendly space.
To find it from Latimer Road tube station, you have to walk past all the Grenfell memorials, and clearly this is an event which has had a major impact on the local community. Latimer Road itself is part residential, part industrial, and it is very exciting to find such a hub of creativity in an area which has traditionally lacked performance spaces.
The cafe itself is spacious, and as well as offering a range of food and drink options, also has free wifi and both indoor and outdoor seating. I could imagine this as a good local place to study, chat, or collaborate over a coffee or a glass of wine.
The theatre is an appealing room, which had seating in an L-shape configuration when I visited. Sightlines are generally very good, with well-raked rows, and seats are unreserved and fairly comfortable. Sound and lighting is excellent and the space is interesting and intimate for audiences.
As a new fringe theatre – it opened in autumn 2017, with a capacity of between 150 and 200 – it joins over 200 other theatre venues within Greater London and has been slowly building up its own niche over the last eighteen months. At the time of its opening, Anthony Biggs stated it “has the potential to be the Almeida of West London … where our audiences are challenged and entertained”.
It has a monthly community reading group, The Playground Readers, in the cafe. It hosts scratch nights and play readings, and has showcased work by Jonathan Lewis, Nina Conti, Jane Austen, Josie Spencer, and many more: plays, comedies, and musicals.
The next major production, from the 2 July, is a new version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.
I hope to be able to visit again in the near future to tell you more about The Playground’s adventurous programming.
London Transport Museum have announced a new run of bookings for their fabulous Hidden London tours, which give the public access to disused stations, platforms and buildings with a connection to the Underground.
I reported back from Charing Cross in March 2016 but have also visited the tours at Aldwych, Euston, Clapham South (former air-raid shelters), 55 Broadway (above St James’s Park Station), Down Street, and Highgate (High Level).
Here is a taster of what to expect on each tour. They are all fascinating in their own way and give an insight into those interesting hidden spaces.
This is the one which should be the top of your list, as both the Drummond Street entrance to the station, and the platforms included in the tour, are included in the space planned for transformation in the work for the new HS2 line.
Clapham South: Subterranean Shelter Tour (visited 14th August 2016)
This is a trip into the deep level shelters utilised both for the Second World War as air-raid shelters, and as accommodation for immigrants during the Windrush generation. Although the shelters are now used for storage and little of the original furnishings are in situ, it is possible to get a sense of the communities which grew below ground.
Down Street: Churchill’s Secret Station (visited 7th August 2016)
Once a stop on the main Piccadilly line serving well-heeled Mayfair, this station closed in the 1930s and was converted into a set of offices and accommodation for the Prime Minister and civil servants during the Second World War.
Highgate: Wilderness Walkabout (visited 3rd September 2017)
Highgate’s high-level station was on the line now known as the Northern Heights walk, between Alexandra Palace and Finsbury Park. It was meant to be electrified and included in the London Underground during the 1940s, but the plans were abandoned during the war. The tunnels at Highgate are now utilised to house bats, and the station is slowly returning to nature.
55 Broadway: London’s First Skyscraper (visited 9th October 2016)
This is a tour around a couple of floors within the headquarters of London Underground, above St James’s Park station. It includes a trip to the roof of the building with views across London.
Aldwych: End of the Line (visited 28th June 2014)
I have not visited as part of Hidden London but on one of the earlier themed trips, which give a flavour of the former Piccadilly line station (closed in 1994).
You can find out more about the tours available between April and September 2019 (including a couple of film screenings) at Hidden London.
I started this blog in 2011 to report back on shows I have attended, mainly theatre but also some concerts and sporting events.
It has also become a vehicle for some film, television (current and archive), book reviews, and some more personal pieces.
On a professional level I worked for twenty-five years as a librarian, and also am a published writer – academic articles, poetry, popular culture – and spent five years editing a journal for a major publisher. If you would like to know more, see my LinkedIn profile.
As of 2019 writing and editing has become my main job, and I am very keen to engage with productions, outlets, and arts organisations to expand my coverage and my reviews.
There’s a quiet corner of the Brent Lodge Park in Hanwell which has some very special residents.
If you have a long memory, you might recall this as the Bunny Park, due to the population of rabbits, and later as the Brent Lodge Animal Centre, which thrived as a small collection of animals, reptiles and birds.
Since April 2017, the Animal Centre has re-branded itself as Hanwell Zoo, and currently boasts residents including rabbits, budgies, wood rails, pygmy goats, kune kune pigs, mara, capybara, lemurs, alpacas, tamarins, porcupines, agoutas, domestic chickens, java sparrows, tortoises, flamingos, ibis, cranes, peacocks, ducks, dwarf mongooses, turkeys, poison frogs, butterflies, a rarely spotted dormouse, and the most recent addition, a small aquarium.
There is a small charge for entry – currently £3.50 for a standard adult ticket – and for repeat visitors, the best value is for an annual pass, at £15.00 for an adult or £10.00 for a child, a senior, or registered disabled.
For those who wish to have more financial involvement with the Zoo, a sponsorship scheme is available to support your favourite resident(s), and the chance to experience the life of a Zookeeper for a Day.
Regular opportunities to “Meet the Meerkats” are available, and occasional opportunities to “Meet the Lemurs” – both are highly recommended for a chance to get closer to the fascinating animals who have made Ealing their home.
There is also a thriving education programme available to schools, especially relating to Key Stages 1 and 2 of the National Curriculum, and a birthday experience can be booked for groups of children.
Let’s take a look at some of the current residents:
Mara. The oldest residents of the Zoo, who arrived around ten years ago. These three rodents (Lily, Grace and Lati) have shared their space over the years with wallabies, guinea fowl, and have now settled with …
Capybara. These two large rodents (Hydro and Tupi) may be found swimming in the pond on hot days; they arrived in the new South American enclosure in May 2017.
Flamingos. The flock of twelve birds arrived from Chester Zoo in May 2017, and live happily in the Caribbean area alongside a group of ducks.
Meerkats. In August 2014, Chico and Kali, two female meerkats arrived from Tilgate Nature Centre in Sussex. This later grew to a group of six with the addition of Arthur, Stephen, Rex and Titch, although Kali has since passed away. They are fascinating to watch and interact with from the public viewing area, and share their space with …
Porcupines. Hatari came to the Zoo in Animal Centre days after being rescued from poor conditions with a broken leg. He has thrived over the years and with the arrival of Kuchimba, found his perfect mate and has now fathered two sets of porcupettes. They generally sleep during the day, being nocturnal animals, but you may spot them at opening time or later in the evening.
Lemurs. These three ring-tailed lemurs are mother and daughters (Tia, Vana and Fi), and are best spotted at feeding time, when they may oblige visitors with a rare appearance!
Alpaca. The two are members of the camel family, and have very different personalities; you will find that one loves the shade while the other loves to sunbathe.
Tamarin monkeys. These three little primates (all females) replaced the long-standing and much-loved resident marmosets in 2017, and are a joy to watch whether feeding, grooming, or exploring their own adventure park.
Hanwell Zoo is a member of BIAZA and participates in a number of international breeding programmes and conservation initiatives. It remains both friendly and professional, with a real community focus, and a clean, safe and caring environment.
Between April and mid-September the Zoo opens each day from 10am-5pm, and between mid-September to the end of March from 10am-4pm. There is a playground to keep little visitors happy, and toilets and a small shop on site. Just outside the perimeter of the Zoo you will find a cafe and picnic area.
Hanwell Zoo can be easily accessed by foot, by bus (10 minutes walk from Drayton Bridge Road), by bicycle, or by car (there is a small, free car park associated with the park, or pay by phone bays). For more information, visit the website or follow on Facebook or Twitter.
All photos by Louise Penn or Colin Penn, 2017-2018