At St George’s Circus there is a performance going on in the midst of an atmospheric building with a fading grandeur and massive holes in the floor. Lit only by lights wired to a generator, candles and torches, the members of the South London Free Arts Collective (SLFAC) are performing the quirky and uplifting story of Brass Crosby. We are in the middle of what is ungraciously called a condemned building, but what could easily be one of the most interesting site specific venues in London; The Duke of Clarence.
Elected the Mayor of London in 1770 Brass Crosby’s is a plucky story of one man fighting the establishment. Where our modern Mayors may be more worried about updating the tube map and having their photos taken with rehabilitated youths, Crosby spent his time standing up for freedom of speech. His most famous fight was a long and vital battle with the House of Commons over the publishing of Parliamentary debates, eerily foreshadowing the shocking revelations made by The Telegraph over our own MPs expenses. For his efforts he was sent to the Tower, only to be saved by the people of London whose protests ensured his release. Somewhat of a hero then, his actions are said to be the inspiration of the term ‘Bold As Brass’.
The SLFAC certainly seem to be as gutsy as Brass, flying in the face of a court injunction from London South Bank University prohibiting people within the building and working alongside the squatters who are living there to stage not only this show but also an intricate art exhibition within the building. Beautiful pieces pepper the corridors, rooms and crevices. It is an incredible space, haunted by the ghosts of a hundred different usages; the echoes of past roles hang over each room like luminous sheets of memory. Stunning, hand painted wall paper, old metal pub pipes and tiny winding staircases all lend The Duke of Clarence a Dickensian charm that is quite intoxicating.
London South Bank University currently own this building, along with the others in the terrace, and although they have fought tooth and nail to keep it unoccupied they seem to be doing nothing with it apart from waiting for it to fall down (a slightly problematic solution now that it’s a Grade 2 Listed Building). The shocking waste of such a space is evident once you enter it, and it’s to SLFAC’s credit that they are raising the profile, even if only amongst other fellow artists, of the building and its sad unfulfilled potential.
But enough of the politics (I’m going to be doing an interview with them next week so you can get your ‘Lefty’ inspiration there – watch this space) and onto the show. Bold As Brass is a delightfully wacky vignette which spans a myriad of theatrical styles with a charming panache. It’s rough around the edges, but hey, that matches its ramshackle surroundings and gives the whole thing an organic feeling. We have a strong central performance from James Groom as Brass whose quiet intensity lends integrity to the proceedings and a wonderfully comedic Greek chorus in the shape of Bobby Brook and Jon Macabe. Using sock puppets, shadow play, direct audience address, grotesque physical characterisation and a series of fabulously decrepit areas in the building we are taken along the story of Brass in the style of Tristram Shandy. And all this in a whip crack-away 30 minutes.
This show’s run has been as temporary as the squatter’s occupation will be, but with promises of more to come, the South London Free Arts Collective is definitely a group to watch out for. As for The Duke of Clarence, the art exhibition is still standing, as is the building itself and for the time being at least, the people who have taken up arms to use this space for something more than just dead air. I think Brass Crosby would be proud.
The exhibition will be open from 6pm on Monday 9th of November. Then open daily from 12-6. Entry is free. You will find them at St Georges Circus, SE1, on the corner of London road and Borough Road.