views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Scratch That Hackney
Hackney Attic
5th September 2014

★★★★☆

Trying out new material can be a risky business. I have seen some particularly nasty EdFringe previews in my time - and yet, it has to be done. One really difficult night is worth it if it stops you from doing a long run in which you can't shift tickets and the reviewers all seem to hate you. So, how best to deal with this? Well, Scratch That girls Ellie Barr, Amy Costello and Katie Payne have created a supportive environment in which all kinds of artists can experiment without fear of being attacked by an angry mob who expect something perfect. Everyone's a critic, with the audience invited to jot down their thoughts and let the performers know what exactly they liked, and what they thought could be improved. I frequently see spectators at other venues stare at feedback forms in dismay and try to discreetly shuffle out without completing them. At Scratch That however, people seem to genuinely want to be a part of the process. There's always such a great vibe and the comments flow freely.

Scratch That Hackney

Photography provided by Scratch That Hackney

Scratch That has been running on and off for a year or so now, and in that time, Barr, Costello and Payne have really nailed getting the atmosphere just right and selecting a good mix of diverse performers. Some of the material lands better; that's just the way a variety evening goes. But I've never seen anything bad as part of Scratch That, only some work that is in an earlier state of development than others. Considering the ticket price is only £6, it's almost rude to complain if some of the acts need a bit more polish.

Just like last year's summer party, there's a lot of different acts. Kicking off proceedings, Tom Mansfield delivers two pieces of spoken word. Both are melodious and deeply intelligent - Mansfield clearly spends a lot of time choosing every word - but the first, Golden Gears, does sound like it needs a soundscape to accompany it. Mansfield is almost rapping in places and he either needs to tone it back or embrace this and add a bit of music. His second offering, Great Grid, does come with its own ethereal score and that definitely adds more power. As Mansfield bemoans how the world is "broken into units to be sold and bought" and talks of "mind fish", he's almost on a different plane of existence to us, and we're drawn into his stories. Sometimes it's almost as if we're tripping, but it's just fascinating to listen to him speak.

Not everything takes place live. Embarrassment by MurrayShortFilms is a really well-put together little film, written by Conor Short and directed by Helen Murray. It shows the frustration of a director (Sam Carrack) at having to work with a shamefully bad actor (Short himself), who doesn't understand his character's motivations, who continually wants to rewrite his own scenes and - perhaps worst of all - doesn't realise how damn annoying he is. I'd be surprised if there wasn't a bit of mining from real life there. It's a hugely entertaining nugget and a worthy inclusion. As a bonus, we also see a stop-motion video by Annika Reed, which takes ordinary household items like taps and cups of coffee and then makes them move, juddering slowly. Everything in Reed's work is very mundane - stylistically, it's done well, that's for sure, but a complete contrast to the rest of the evening. Some of the other pieces are purposefully attempting to shock us, whereas here it's so ordinary that you wonder whether there's some kind of strange double bluff going on.

I'm not entirely sure if Annie Bashford's The Widow is theatre, physical comedy or performance art. Maybe it's all three. The humour derives from terrifying and entertaining us in equal measures, with the titular widow a grotesque who repulses us with her offer of free hugs. Presumably given she is defined by her marital status - signed up for life, ended up alone - it's actually desperately sad that she's seeking comfort from strangers and we all reject her. I do fear what it says about us that we don't take the time to consider the feelings of the woman in black and instead instantly laugh at her monobrow, funny teeth and ridiculously tall wimple. It's a curious piece, but it does get the laughs and it leaves us with plenty to think about. It's comedy with a hidden dose of post-show guilt.

Rukhsana Merrise

Photography provided © Katie Payne

On a somewhat lighter note, Rukhsana Merrise blew me away with her set. She's a local girl, who writes and performs soulful, poetic tracks which are a perfectly-judged fusion of folk and dance. Merrise has one of those effortlessly powerful voices, rasping in places, but always controlled. She exudes both talent and warmth. I must confess, I hadn't heard of her before, and there's not a lot of chatter about her on the internet. I can't fathom whether Merrise is really new to this business or just woefully under-appreciated. Either way, she is not going to stay a secret for long. There's a great recording of Tears o' Freedom kicking about on SoundCloud, but let me tell you, she sounds even better live, with the effects stripped to a bare minimum.

Gemma Rogers & The Mil Men are also likeable from the word go, but they just don't have the same distinctive sound. Although their songs are good, they do start to blend into each other, with at least one in their set borrowing heavily from another. At one point, I did wonder if I was listening to a reprise rather than a different track. Whilst Rogers and co are pleasant to listen to, they become more background filler when their songs blend in each other so. There is talent, but the group probably need to take a step back and focus on making each song unique, rather than trying to put together an album's worth of music. As Merisse demonstrated, a few amazing songs hit harder than lots of good but samey ones.

It may be a scratch night, but standup James Lacey - or at least, the character he puts on - is more unprepared than most. He plays us back voice memos of unfunny jokes he's thought of earlier. It's deliberately bad, so bad it's good, but it's fairly tame stuff. Omar Ibrahim and Lee Drage, together Omar & Lee, fare much better in the funny stakes. From the moment they dance into the space, they energise the room with their sketch comedy painting the pair of them as sexy studs. In character, both men get their swagger on, and whilst you might be able to resist their good looks, you cannot resist laughing along with them. There's just a huge sense of fun in all that they do, and when the comedians are having a good time, that's always infectious.

Tessa Waters

Photography provided by Scratch That Hackney

Tessa Waters condenses her 40-minute Edinburgh Fringe show into a mere 10-minute slot, with WOMANz a light-hearted piece of physical comedy which is all about body confidence. Her act is very much one which lives or dies based on the audience's willingness to get involved. Thankfully for Waters, Scratch That always has the kind of atmosphere where the crowd are up for pretty much anything, and she has no trouble in getting everyone to jiggle along with her, as she demonstrates her signature moves. I can see how the full-length version probably did really well on some nights up north and bombed on others, but as a short set as part of a summer party, it's a great choice.

When you think about it, nine completely random performances and then a DJ until well past the last Overground for only a couple of quid is a damn fine bargain in any city, let alone London. Those Scratch That girls have created a regular event which is hugely experimental and yet inclusive and easygoing. Not to be missed, whether you're a spectator or a performer.

Scratch That Hackney takes place on the first Thursday of every month at Hackney Attic.

Nearest station: Hackney Central (Overground)



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