Venus in furs/ fortune tellers/ Pestilance personified/ a botoxed starlet/ corpse babies/ cerebral rodents/ cannibalistic mink/ a kinky charlatan-surgeon. Populating a literary landscape defined by Southwark Cathedral, a Wolverhampton office block, a Deptford park bench, a cruise liner cabin and a Danish fur farm. Such was the character/ landmark montage that coloured my Thursday night when I finally made it my business to attend premier east London storytelling night Are You Sitting Comfortably?. The monthly spoken word evening is curated and performed by White Rabbit. AUSC? has been hosted by Arts Admin HQ Toynbee Studios’ in their Arts Cafe Bar on Commercial Street, E1 since October 2008.
I knew the airy, spacious venue from attending a Living Pictures theatre making workshop there last year, but after dark the quaint courtyard off a busy traffic corridor takes on a rather forbidding aspect. However, a warm glow emanated from the cafe, my friend had successfully bagged the well-worn Chesterfield in the corner and as uncharacteristic early birds we found ourselves with first pick of the scrumptious array of cupcakes. Seventh heaven, and we still had the entertainment to come.
The place was decked out in charmingly kitsch fashion- all quaint crockery, table cloths and doilies boasting cake stands piled high with homemade treats. Each children’s party fayre platter was affixed with the tempting, Alice in Wonderland-esque instruction ‘eat me’ and were generously included in the modest £5 ticket price, I might add. Obviously this love affair with all things vintage, frilly and feminine is very de rigueur at the moment, from Borne and Hollingsworth’s chintzy living room bar in Fitzrovia to Tea and Sympathy in New York’s Greenwich Village, with the Blitz Parties and dressing up box boutiques in between. Could all things passé be becoming just a tad, um, passé? Or cloyingly ubiquitous at any rate. But I have to admit to nurturing more than a little affection for all that sepia-tinted retrojection (at least where clutch bags and confectionary are concerned) and in this setting it felt utterly apt. Actor- writer duo Bernadette Russell and Gareth Brierley had created a quirkily civilised and gently nostalgic context allowing adults to indulge in that rare treat usually reserved for the under-5s- being read to. I hesitate to suggest that the content of the stories was less important than the soothing ambience and intimate concept; afterall, the well-judged sweetness of the tea party scenario might well have left a sour aftertaste had it all been a case of style over substance. Which it wasn’t remotely, thankfully. But as it was, the captive audience of apparently discerning, right-brain dominant book worms had been lulled into just the right mood of childlike comfort and anticipation that left listeners in my line of vision hanging on every word.
Disbelief suitably suspended, cynicism sugared away with calorie content quite forgotten, we were quite simply all ears. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop on the floor of our collective nursery- well, over the discreet munching of marshmellows. The proceedings began with a haunting war time mystery by Vanessa Woolf Hoyle, conveyed in 4 minutes flat. A destitute matriarchal protagonist was confronted with prophetic visions of her dead son, suspiciously conjured by an attentive stranger. The theme for the evening’s narrative offerings being ‘Lies,’ I was questioning the veracity and reliability of narrators, characters and even the readers themselves from the word go. I felt both at ease and strangely on edge- the ideal contradictory state induced by great storytelling.
But no time for lingering over the finer points of the prose, as before the applause had even died away we were ushered from Sarah Waters territory to something resembling Helen Fielding at her most candid as Hannah Proctor invited us to play voyeur over ‘the sweat-drenched hours on a futon’ enjoyed by her adulteress heroine and a ‘fragrant, delicate herbivore,’ prior to an awkward morning-after over corn flakes and the subsequent transatlantic abortion- denied thereafter, of course.
I was relieved that the tenor of the short stories promised to be anything but saccharine, if the first two were anything to go by. I was wary of simply letting the voices wash over me, as is the tendency when you tune into Book at Bedtime half way through the week whilst brushing your teeth and planning tomorrow’s packed lunch. The darker and spikier the tale-telling, all the better for catching you off guard and fighting the tide of fatigue; a war of attrition which I regrettably lost at the final starlit reading delivered by my favourite hirsute raconteur, Daniel Kitson at the Latitude festival in July.
As the male half of White Rabbit took to the stage it was welcome change in pitch to hear a masculine voice relate a macabre absurdist romp. Gareth Brierley’s apocalyptic ‘The End of All Things’ zig-zagged through made-for-media massacres, satanic New York laboratories and the afore mentioned administrative drudgery of the Midlands-an unlikely aphrodisiac for a white collar Death to get it on with his adoring assistant Nigel.
The format of the evening allowed for a brisk pace in which three stories were reeled off back to back, punctuated by a 10 minute break for reflection and refueling. As the evening wore on we were treated to the Machiavellian anthropomorphism of a gerbil’s maths tournament (rigged) by Joel Shay. Cue outbreaks of unrestrained audience guffaws. Michael Spring’s ‘Truth’ closed the evening with a skin-crawling, if tantalising account of a white-coated temptress climaxing with talk of scalpels on board a bodice-ripping booze cruise. Inspiration for SAGA holiday makers everywhere.
The stand-out story of the programme for me was undoubtedly Bernadette Russell’s self-penned tale of a god-fearing vicar’s alfresco crisis of faith in his Deptford parish. ‘Losing My Religion’ allowed for a smattering of real pathos as we followed the earnest William from agnostic boyhood through ordination and finally to drowning his doubts in a hip flask at the dead of night. Wicked flashes of character comedy were embodied by Mad Johnny of the Codfather fish and chip shop, the local fool on the hill lending an ear to Father William’s soul searching, amid Existential angst and the nightmarish meowing of copulating cats.
Whilst some writing was undoubtedly more assured and original than the rest, the standard was universally engaging and imaginative. Bar the intermittent flickering of the delightful back projections (stills of Pinocchio, Watch with Mother & Ladybird book spines) which were at turns entirely appropriate and at others wildly distracting, I had no complaints. Cynics might say I was softened up by the chocolate coin cache I claimed from the literary pass the parcel, or, more likely the goodbye hug from lady in red Bernadette, but I care not.
Submissions are now being accepted on next month’s theme of Horror to be aired on 16th December. It’s enough to rudely awaken the sluggish inner scribe in us all.
Photograph by Kirsty McQuire