Scrubbed elbows in Wapping

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The Independent Online
'THE PUMPING station,' said the man on the Wapping Wall, 'is down along there. What on earth is going on there tonight?' Well might he ask. Down in the cavern of the long-deserted Wapping Pumping Station in the East End of London, where dust lies thickly on Victorian machinery that once pumped the air to make the lifts at Selfridges zoom and raise the Odeon's organ in Leicester Square, a curious group was assembling.

Twelve people, recruited a fortnight before, were about to give a dance performance about domestic obsession, called Dirt, complete with a mound of domestic paraphernalia, before an audience of the unemployed. 'Tonight's free preview performance,' according to Time Out, 'is open only to UB40 holders.'

It sounded like a parody of a Posy Simmonds cartoon. Was someone in the depths of long-term unemployment likely to be cheered by an evening in the cold, damp darkness of an industrial monument, watching a dance around an ironing board?

Certainly, among the slim, black-clad twentysomethings gathering beside the pumps in the impromptu foyer, sipping mushroom soup at pounds 1 a cup, there seemed to be few unemployed truck drivers or road sweepers; and, despite its proximity to the Isle of Dogs, no British National Party voters. Most of the audience seemed to be friends of the dancers.

A few members of (in PC speak) 'the unwaged' could be identified, however. Simon Goodwin, 28, from Hackney, an unemployed sculptor with shoulder-length golden hair, dressed in a donkey jacket with scarlet shoulder patches, and Lisa le Feuvre, 23, from the Oval, an unemployed architect, were sitting on a bench, hoping for tickets. 'I've a small subsidised studio,' said Simon. 'I'm an artist, but I don't earn any money.'

A set of doors opened beyond the soup kitchen and the audience filed past an interior wall, on which green moss and ferns grew in Gothic profusion, into a large shadowy hall with a skeleton of iron girders. Through one high window, a street light glimmered. It looked like a set for a Jack the Ripper movie or a nightmare dreamt by Michael Portillo. On almost every seat lay a thick blanket and a hot-water bottle: the audience of more than 100 snuggled in, and the place was full.

The lights dimmed and a man and a woman appeared, dressed in black and Doc Martens. They handed piles of plates to one another beside a washing-up bowl. Then, after a short while, they grew bored by this and hurled the plates to the concrete floor, where they shattered.

Giggles ran round the audience. The eyes of the women, in particular, shone with pleasure: it seemed no coincidence that this performance had been commissioned by the Women's Playhouse Trust. The two performers seemed pleased, too. They ran over to the fragments of plates and jumped up and down on them. Soon all 12 performers appeared, androgynous in the black coats of Thirties Mafia gangsters, against the dramatic gloom. Some were very tall, and one of them was a little plump.

A very tall woman sat on a chair on a table while a man, who had come crawling through a curtain wearing a pair of suddenly sinister-seeming yellow washing-up gloves, carefully washed her elbows (more appreciative chuckles from the audience).

Afterwards, I asked she of the scrubbed elbows how she normally spent her time. She said her name was Lisa Haight, 24, and usually worked as an office cleaner in Brighton, which did not sound like much of a change. But then she said that her real occupation was as 'a surreal cabaret artiste', performing as Ariel, The Fearless Amazon, and Her Boy Bondage. 'Most of us dancing are freelance performers - out-of-work actors and dancers,' she said.

On the concrete stage, 'Ariel' briefly struck a pose of saintly sacrifice with her partner, while two black-clad aides held a halo of plates behind his head and the plump lady sang a beautiful 'Amen.'

About three-quarters of the way through several of us wondered whether we could bear to see one more spotlit washing-up bowl. But we were rapidly distracted by the whole troupe doing a frenetic dance, waving pristine white cotton gloves in the air - it seemed rather a shock and a shame when suddenly they stopped.

Everyone applauded. 'Tremendous]' someone said. Mark Ravenhill, 27, a director of plays and opera - including, appropriately for this cold but artistic gathering, La Boheme for Opera East - cast aside his blanket. 'To be frank,' he said, 'I think it was very 1983. It was sharing someone's private images. They're slick and funny, but they don't connect with you spiritually, do they?'

But this was not the general reaction to choreographer Lea Anderson's new work. Most seemed distinctly cheered.

Tertia Longmire, 30, a sculptor on income support from Tulse Hill, south London 'working on installations in paper and chemicals on the theme of boundaries', said it had been wonderful. 'I thought the message was . . . like, life is continuing, despite the recession. No, change that to humour continues despite the recession.'

'I don't know what the message was,' confessed her friend Emma Rushden, an unwaged sculptor from Peckham.

In the corner stood two St John Ambulance volunteers ready to carry out anyone overcome by it all (remarkably, they were not unwaged sculptors): Jackie Kennedy, a student nurse at University College Hospital, thought it had been absolutely brilliant; and David O'Meara, a van driver, said: 'I don't know what they were trying to do, but it kept your attention.'

So silence fell and damp ascended the Wapping Pumping Station. The London Docklands Development Corporation would like to sell it as a public arts space or a theatre. Strangely, it seems ideal. 'It's been excellent]' said Ariel, the Fearless Amazon. And the audience faded into the night, along with her long, pink-clad legs.

Lea Anderson's 'Dirt', part of the Women's Playhouse Trust 'Life in the City' project, at Wapping Pumping Station, Glamis Road, Wapping Wall, London E1, at 8pm tonight: tickets, pounds 8 (071-379 9700). Now open to all.

(Photograph omitted)

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