Getting up close and personal with historical figures

Theatres across the country are currently working out when, and how, they might consider reopening. Some have opened already – as well as Greenwich Theatre, Southwark Playhouse has reopened with the welcome return of the small-scale musical The Last Five Years, the Bridge Theatre is presenting the stage versions of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series and the musical Six will soon reclaim its place in the West End.

The challenge for venue managers who are considering welcoming audiences back is putting together a programme of shows that are financially viable with only a quarter of the seats available for sale, and with the actors on stage remaining at least two metres apart from one another.

One particular type of show that lends itself to this model is the “evening with”, a chance to get up close and personal with a famous or notable personality. However, being theatre, rather than a chance to attend a Q&A by a living person these solo shows offer the audience the opportunity to spend time with a figure from history. Greenwich Theatre has three such shows lined up for the months ahead, with two performed by Liverpool based writer and actor Tayo Aluko.

First up, on Thursday 26 November in Call Mr Robeson, Aluko offers an evening in the company of Showboat star Paul Robeson. Remembered as a world-famous actor and singer, Robeson’s now largely forgotten political activism led many to describe him as the forerunner of the civil rights movement. His sympathies for the Soviet Union and for communism, and his criticism of the United States government and its foreign policies, caused him to be blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Aluko’s show, which was seen at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2012 and in the West End in 2013, recalls the actor and activist’s remarkable and eventful life – and of course features a virtuoso rendition of the unforgettable Ol’ Man River.

The following evening in Just An Ordinary Lawyer, Aluko turns his attention to Tunji Sowande, a keen cricketer, an active solo concert performer and the lawyer who quietly broke through one barrier after another in the late 1970s to become Britain’s first black judge.

Then, in December, European Arts Company presents an evening with Charles Dickens. In his own lifetime Dickens toured the country telling the tale of A Christmas Carol, his festive novel about Ebenezer Scrooge and his encounter with a trio of ghosts. He enacted it over 150 times and the phenomenal effect that these readings had on the public is set to be recreated live on stage in Greenwich.

These shows serve to do a number of things. They each tell a powerful or entertaining story. They each offer a glimpse back in time – to a moment of political unrest, of groundbreaking social change or of widespread inequality and economic hardship. Most of all though, they remind us that all of the great moments of change in our history were driven by individuals. In driving the civil rights movement, the diversification of the British legal system and the fight for economic equality in Victorian England, the role played by Robeson, Sowande or Dickens cannot be overstated, and these three performances will each look beyond the better known legacies of the three men to uncover the real characters at the heart of each story.

James Haddrell is the Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre


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