No signs of flagging from the People

The People Show has been improvising magical, anarchic performances sin ce the Sixties. Ann Coltart is still a fan
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The Independent Culture
I can never remember the number, but never forget the atmosphere of every People Show I've caught in the last couple of decades. The one touring now is People Show 100. It can't be only a hundred, surely?

I still remember the first time I saw Mark Long, the only remaining founder member - he was naked, streaked with muck, pushing a coal cart along rail tracks at the Oval House in Kennington, London. There were echoes of dripping water and exquisite violinmusic, images of misery and beauty which shifted in a mad kind of logic.

They worked out themes and images through a quirky democracy, sitting round for a couple of days, devising, conjuring sets from accumulated junk. The resulting work has been described as mime, and they may use mime, but there has been voice, too, and music, dance, comedy both weird and cosy, acrobatics, swimming, spine-shuddering sound effects, precarious machinery.

Their democratic approach could be destructive, according to Jeff Nuttall, the poet and painter who was a founding member. "At the beginning, I wanted to alienate and attack and disconcert people," he said, "others wanted applause. There were splits which sometimes caused us to hit each other.

"In the beginning, there was no Arts Council money and people had day jobs which allowed more artistic freedom. But I have a great admiration for them, despite their flaws," he said. "They've always been post-modern. They've no desire to locate themselves."

Another early associate, David Aulkin, is head of drama at Channel 4. "They are still unique and have thrilling concepts," he said. "It was wonderful when I saw Time of the Gypsies, the Yugoslav film, and recognised passages which were pure People Show in the kind of images used." It turned out that Emir Kusturica, the director, had seen and loved the People Show in Sarajevo in the 1970s.

For a one-off show, number 50 perhaps, they bussed their audience from London to a Brighton hotel, where supper was served while a boxing match was set up. Everyone was eventually led on to the beach, where the fighters and characters in dinner suits waded out to a boxing-ring that bobbed on the waves. The fight went on as the ring was slowly drawn away by boat into the evening horizon.

It's not, in other words, what some would call proper theatre. But, should they ever trudge off into a mellow retirement, the group would leave a large, oddly shaped hole in its soul. Mark Long says in Roland Rees's book Fringe First: "An actor's question would probably be `Why?' A typical People Show question would be `How?' "

n Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, 01222 399 666, Feb 10, 11; Unity Theatre, Liverpool (0151-709 4988), Feb 15