views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Story Night at Torriano: Romeo and Juliet Re-told by Debs Newbold
Torriano Meeting House
9th September 2015


Debs Newbold

Photography provided by Debs Newbold

Walking into Story Night at Torriano Meeting House, it felt like I'd accidentally stumbled upon some sort of secret society's hangout. With a fairly nondescript fascia, you'd continue past this building if you didn't know to look out for it, it's hidden in the heart of a residential area in Kentish Town. Doors open half an hour before the night kicks off and by the time I got there, the room was already filled with the sort of gentle, warm chatter which suggests a friendly audience in the making. Host Nell Phoenix was serving up gin cocktails and giving the impression that she counted every single person in the room as an old friend. You know what, that probably was the case - Story Night is the sort of event which attracts regulars.

Torriano Meeting House can probably fit up to 30 people at a push (around 20 more comfortably), but despite the small capacity, tickets are only £7. You'd pay more for a cocktail than that in most parts of London, let alone some entertainment and a drink, making this storytelling event for adults exceptionally cheap. Phoenix is clearly in this for the love of a good yarn rather than commercial gain and whilst it sounds a little hippyish, she's somehow managed to keep it all going for more than seven years. It shouldn't work, yet it does - what kind of sorcery is this?

Although there are open spots available to anyone who wants to take the floor, this night solely belonged to established storyteller Debs Newbold. As well as the venue being tiny, it's nothing if not quirky, decorated with local artwork and flickering tea lights in old mismatched jam jars. If you don't have any props or fancy lighting available to you, normally the starting point for a piece of theatre is a clean black or white space, not one full of distractions. Newbold therefore starts seemingly at a disadvantage, however it doesn't take long before the surroundings melt away and you're hooked on her every word. Trust me, you can't love good theatre without also being partial to a good bit of storytelling and sometimes you get so used to all the extra touches a large creative team can bring that you forget it is possible to pull off a truly magnificent performance with only one person. Newbold reminds you there's a startling beauty in simplicity.

Romeo and Juliet are - quite rightly - just a pair of unlucky kids in this version by Newbold. We're turned into their warring families, the room split into the Capulets and Montagues. When the pair reach their tragic conclusion, we can't help but feel a little to blame, after all, what did we do to protect them? As the heads of both families shake hands and Newbold thanks them for making peace with her hushed voice wavering ever so slightly, you feel emotional, as if you've actually witnessed the end of a war. (You really haven't. This is just a show!) Newbold involves us so integrally into her tale that we genuinely feel moved. Given Romeo and Juliet is a story that is staged far too often, you can listen on autopilot, waiting for the well-known key scenes to unfold, but Newbold's version drags you into the heart of it and makes you feel like it's the first time you've heard it. She takes your cynicism and overfamiliarity and resets how you feel about the Bard and his work.

Describing Newbold's delivery is like trying to catch hold of the wind, try as you might, it just doesn't seem like you're getting anywhere. Her style of language moves from old Bill's tongue to the casual modern everyday; she laughs conspiratorially and then in hushed delicate tones describes heartbreak; her whole body twists and contorts with such ease and fluidity she appears to have no bones; she stands solemnly then runs to the other end of the room - everything about Newbold is always changing and moving. She uses every trick at her disposal to transport us into another world, and to make us believe that in the moment, there is nothing that has ever mattered or will ever matter apart from her tale.

Back when most people couldn't read and write, important things were passed on through performance - spoken poetry, song, anything which could be used to make people remember without having to refer to the written word. Newbold uses that same level of care and skill in her storytelling today. I want to call her old-fashioned because of that, however I fear it's a label which doesn't do justice to her friendly, laid-back and adaptable personality. You just can't pin her down with adjectives - she's a far more talented wordsmith than me.

Really, we should just ask Newbold to write her own press, she's the only person with a shot at effectively describing what she does with any real accuracy. However, given the ethics in getting a performer to self-review, all we can really do is recommend you see Newbold in action yourself. You'll be utterly enthralled and leave with the same feeling of having seen something so special you can't find the right away of conveying that to anyone who wasn't there too. If you can track down Newbold - she's something of a touring magician - she's an utter delight to spend time with. If you can't, I'd be inclined to take a punt on any of the other storytellers Phoenix finds for her Story Night. This really is storytelling for grownups at its absolute best - one of London's best-kept secrets.

Story Night at Torriano: Romeo and Juliet Re-told by Debs Newbold ran on 9th September 2015 at Torriano Meeting House. Story Night runs on the second Wednesday of every month.

Nearest tube station: Kentish Town (Northern)

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