The Vault Festival continues: Shybairn’s Talk Propa

Back at the Vault Festival I realise that many graffities and event-related art works have already been sprayed and tagged over since my visit earlier this month – the Leake Street tunnel under Waterloo Station is an ever morphing organ. I arrive well on time and can therefore venture out further into the labyrinth The Vaults are: Plenty of bars, more stages and alcoves and thankfully finally a women-only toilet. For the Studio, tonight’s space for Shybairn’s Talk Propa, I head back to the graffiti tunnel and enter just next to exit – The FutureheadsKate Bush cover of Hounds of Love welcomes us on repeat; Sunderland covering Kent.

Meet Hanna Clifford and Rebecca Charlton at their celebration of Northern women – at the same time an accusation of the British acting industry which has established that they will never been leading lady-material and who can only hope to be cast as maids, receptionists, cleaners, farmer’s daughters or wives or as “pregnant teenager in job centre”, “junkie” or “drunk girl 2” to use some credit terms. In an exercise they read out the shipping forecast, challenging themselves with painful memories of leaving a wrong first impression over and over again by repeating feedback from casting agents and dates: They sound “funny”, “uneducated” and talk too much, talk too loud and receive the biggest insults in any English conversation regarding class and being “common”. The audience nods, gasps and agrees.

One of many poster walls for the Vault Festival 2020

In-between they recite poems about the sea and its dynamics and the engines it moves, accompanied by projections, dance moves and the sounds of seagulls, horn and recorded synth sounds – no matter how improvised the sail on stage looks, these are the strongest moments, unpretentiously carried only by voice, lyric and ambience.

To create the Northern Woman the industry wants, all clichés are literally mixed to a big, messy dough: Tracksuits and fake eyelashes, high heels and wellies, Cheryl Cole albums, Yorkshire puds, tea and so much gravy that they shower each other in it. Stage and outfits require tidying now, quiet minutes pass for far too long. Afterwards a cuppa follows with some audience members and a chit chat about living and working in the South of England with that accent. Above us the commuter trains roar heavily while in the background projected slides accuse the white, masculine elite to shape, demand and accept only a single form of articulation in this country.

What do I have to say about this after more than a decade in London, still speaking with a foreign accent, mostly guessed (wrongly) as Icelandic? I have not spent more than weekend trips up North but I remember a presentation training course at the Institute of Directors by ex-Coronation Street actor Lawrence Mullin who shared that he was advised back in the sixties to either clear his way of speaking or that he’d only find employment in the two local theatres, emphasizing on the town’s heritage. The situation for Northern actors does not seem to have changed in the 21st century. Does this make Northern women a minority, needing protection and quotas? It is not a real question but it provokes some thinking. Fact is that, should I spend some time in, say, Munich or Vienna and I’d see a play advertised about North Germans feeling alienated there because of the way we speak – I’d book my ticket immediately and volunteer to sit in the first row.

**** out of 5 stars

Developed, directed and produced by Caitlin Evans

Played until mid-February 2020 – hopefully the Vault Festival returns in 2023.

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