Go People performs new play Win/Lose/Draw in front-room of Covent Garden flat

Ah, the smell of the greasepaint, the gentle applause of the crowd. Nick Duerden pulls up a sofa for the smallest show in town

It is a little after seven o'clock on a balmy July evening in Covent Garden, a stone's throw from the Strand, London's Theatreland, where right now people are getting ready to enjoy a play, or perhaps a glitzy musical. Up here, meanwhile, in a swank apartment three floors above the tourist-trapped piazza, just 25 of us are gathered for what promises to be a far more intimate theatrical experience.

It’s a play called Win/Lose/Draw by Ara Watson and Mary Gallagher, and it’s being performed by three actresses whose IMDb entries are perhaps conspicuous by their brevity. They are Mel Heslop, Lucy Eaton and Lottie Purton, each fairly recent drama-school graduates.

Their stage tonight is the front-room of this flat, and comprises just three foldaway chairs positioned between a bookshelf and a piano; the audience have been arranged on sofas around them. For the self-conscious theatregoer who revels in the darkness of an auditorium, this could make for rather discomfiting close quarters. As it transpires, it merely renders it all the more captivating.

Win/Lose/Draw comprises three playlets of not more than half an hour each: the mums of prepubescent beauty pageant girls; the wayward young woman whose son has been taken into care; and two unhappily married ladies bonding over chocolate cake. There are no costume changes. Instead, between segments, the actresses stand before us and - adopting thousand-yard stares – unbutton dresses, muss up hair, and drop shoulders in the gradual process of becoming different characters. The effect, witnessed in such close quarters, is startling.

Private theatre performances have become quite the thing. “Travelling players” cropped up in Shakespeare, and they were briefly popular in Restoration times. In Belarus, just a few years ago, actors unable to work in traditional theatres for political reasons put on performances in people's houses, and the concept is taking off in the UK not just with Heslop, Eaton, Purton and the play’s director Freddie Hutchins, under the collective name Go People, but by a growing number of theatre groups. An outfit called Frantic Theatre puts on musical comedy revues in front-rooms, while The Other Way Works is a Birmingham-based company that also pays house calls, specialising in immersive theatre experiences for a game audience.

“It feels much more intimate and it’s thrilling entering the audience’s world,” says Louise Platt, star of The Other Way Works’ one-woman show Avon Calling. “The contract is flipped around and the lines between fiction and reality are blurred. I like to think I leave the ghost of what has taken place – and the smell of countless beauty products – in their private space.”

Home is where the art is: a copy of the script Home is where the art is: a copy of the script (Jason Alden)
But while some actors choose to perform in this way, the fact is that actors today require initiative to survive. It’s an overcrowded market now, and those who don’t make an effort to stand out soon fade away. “There used to be a relatively contained number of specialist drama colleges,” says Martin Brown, assistant general secretary of Equity, the actors’ union, “but now there are an enormous number of courses, which means we have more actors than ever. The turnover is massive.”

When Lucy Eaton graduated from the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Arts (Lamda) three years ago, she was told by her tutor that, “this is the worst time to be coming out as an actor, ever. Not what you want to hear, really,” she says.

Private theatre performances don’t come cheap – Frantic and The Other Way Works charge about £160, while Go People’s rates start at around £500 – but as Brown points out, “the more people you can squeeze into your living-room [to share the cost], the more reasonable it becomes, and you end up paying fringe-theatre prices, which is certainly much less than the average West End ticket.”

On the small stage: Actress Lucy Eaton performing (Jason Alden) On the small stage: Actress Lucy Eaton performing (Jason Alden)
There’s a philanthropic element, too. It helps foster the next generation of stars. “Actors need to develop, to grow in confidence,” says one of Go People’s patrons, the actress Niamh Cusack. “But they need the chance to do so in the first place. It’s the only way they are going to improve, and the only way they will be ready when opportunity does come their way.” The Frantic Theatre company claims a broader agenda, too: “Switching off the television isthe revolutionary answer to this nation’s problems,” it claims.

At the end of tonight’s performance, there is no curtain call, and little fanfare, just a round of applause, then upstairs for wine and pats on backs. Cusack, who attended the performance, is full of praise.

“Oh, I love being so close to the actors,” she says. “I like seeing the looks in their eyes, the exchange that goes on between them, the sweat, the snot, the tears, the whole lot. You know, a play only really comes to life when the audience comes in. To be able to perform is a very validating theatrical experience for young actors; to witness it this close-up as a theatregoer is thrilling.”

Go People’s public performance of ‘Win/Lose/Draw’ is at Waterloo East Theatre, 23 September – 5 October; wearegopeople.com

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