views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Next Phase
The Blue Elephant Theatre
10th April 2015


Over the past year and a bit, it's fair to say that the Blue Elephant has hosted a mixed bag of productions as it's tried to find a new direction. But this 50-seater venue is nothing if not ambitious and persistent, and it's finally got its groove back and entered The Next Phase. An appropriate name then for a one-off evening of spoken word, music and dance in Camberwell, packed with a real sense of community, some extraordinary talent and an overwhelming amount of emotion. It's shame The Next Phase has no subsequent performances but it certainly brings together a lot of different art forms and feelings and makes the rest of Elefeet Dance Festival seem an exciting prospect.

Rikki Livermore ("Rik the Most") is well-spoken and perhaps rather more polite than you would expect for a compere, bringing a positive rather than raucous energy to the room. It turns out he's partial to a bit of spoken word himself, which he demonstrates by rattling out some of his work. Rik's subject matter has been done to death and he does stumble a few times yet it's relatable and as a host, he's charming and engaging. The crowd are all to happy to play along with him, and he certainly keeps the atmosphere happy and relaxed.

GREEdS is a man whose name needs a bit of explanation - it stands for "Generating Rhymes to Engage the EnlighteneD Soul". His spoken word however doesn't need any introduction. It's melodious and heartfelt, based on the best and the worst of his own life and personal experiences. I hesitate to describe it as raw because I don't want to imply it's rough around the edges - new material or not, this man is slick. The words roll off his tongue flawlessly and gather power. As GREEdS speaks, you feel a genuine connection to his vocal mastery. You laugh at his younger, immature self ("I was not a gentleman"); you hold your breath, frozen, as he describes atrocities towards young girls committed in Nigeria.

Linah Nambooze, supported by Ronoc (that's Conor spelled backwards, language fans) is warm, bubbly and self-assured. Although, given she has the full package - the vocals, the looks, the rhythm - there's no reason why she shouldn't ooze confidence. Nambooze sings about her sense of self-worth and affairs of the heart and even manages to get everyone to sing along with her. It may be a friendly crowd, but persuading a room to repeat the lyrics to a song they've only just heard proves she can pen a catchy tune and that she has a great rapport with her audience.

Following the interval, we see a work-in-progress performance of Penny, choreographed by Andrea Queens. It's more structured than the earlier short piece by the Afro Jazz Ensemble but this actually makes it slightly harder to follow. The Ensemble are incredibly fluid and natural - their athletic and yet graceful movement connects with you on an instinctive level. Their performance is almost hypnotic. It's hard to verbalise a reaction - it does make you feel something and it's captivating to watch.

Penny is not all about emotion; there's a story there to keep up with. The piece is based on the real-life story of a beggar who is killed for her pennies, but without knowing this background, the relevance of the initial soundscape, the begging gestures and constant throwing of coins in the air just isn't obvious. However, as the two girls (Simone Foster and Ella Mesma) mimic each other, their behaviour is playful and full of joy - it's not entirely clear whether Foster and Mesma are two halves of the same girl, with Mesma the ghost left behind, or in fact just very close sisters, with one left behind. Still this doesn't hinder the sentiment. As Penny's mother (Lula Mebrahtu) reaches out to Mesma's character, crying, the air is thick with a sense of loss.

Penny blends dance, recognisable vocals and more guttural sounds. Mebrahtu and Limbaya often fail to make actual words, giving rise to an almost ethereal, plainly distressing sound. It's a highly visceral exploration of grief which hits hard, whether you've already experienced that kind of pain, or you know it's waiting for you at some point. The fine details become unimportant - we focus on the primal hurt and just how universal that is.

Nestled in the middle of lots of flats and houses, even though the Blue Elephant has been where it is for several years, finding it can still come as an unexpected pleasure - it's not in a traditional location for a theatre. None of the acts in this variety night fall under the umbrella of traditional theatre performance either, and that's important, because it underlines that the venue wants to do more than simply meet your expectations, it wants to reinvent itself and reach a new phase. This is it.

The Next Phase ran on 10th April 2015 at the Blue Elephant Theatre as part of Elefeet Dance Festival.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)

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