A Week With Coney
29th July 2015A mysterious coffee shop and a swollen ankle.
I survey a location in central London, receiving messages by text and phone from a man I have never met. I briefly consider entering an unmarked building to occupy a vantage point in their lobby. Shortly thereafter I learn what that building actually is, and realise that would have been a very bad idea. As Wimbledon plays behind us on a giant outdoor screen, I notice a stranger I think may be on our team. Making eye contact, I blink, slowly, to acknowledge her. Startled, she looks away.
We gather on the stairs of a landmark you know. The target shows, anxious and clutching a briefcase. We fan out around him, trying to look like tourists. He makes a sudden U-turn. Has he spotted the tail or is he having second thoughts? I pull the old parallel street trick and come at him from another direction. He enters a public building. A couple of the team slip ahead of me and one guy runs a ham-fisted, clumsy distract. The move is made. Our target phones the police.
I meet K for a late curry and a staggeringly expensive taxi to the Waterloo train. Her neighbour has a flagpole. On it, the Union Jack hangs limp.
An early start in Surrey. We drive past a huge, empty racecourse to board an early train. Both eastbound and westbound tracks terminate at the same destination.
At offices previously occupied by a national newspaper, in a room with two head-shaped holes in the plaster wall, I meet a diverse bunch of interesting theatre people. I learn about, then introduce M, a director who inserts chunks of Shakespeare into the drops in trance music.
We hear about an early Coney project, A Small Town Anywhere, and explore the idea of an audience experience which begins when they first hear about the show, and only ends when they cease to think about it. Our game design process devises a new version of Grandma’s Footsteps where there are two Grandmas and they both rotate.
Today the workshop will spill out onto the London streets. During the warmup I get knocked over and feel my foot twist as my body goes down. Within three minutes my ankle swells up. It looks like somebody has inserted a golf ball beneath the skin.
Bandaged up, limping like a Cold War spook, I practise tailing in the street with A. I notice an old organ manufacturer, a building named 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10, and a caravan left over from Temple Studios. I lose her briefly while adjusting my boot. Reacquiring her down another street, I blend with a crowd of lunchtime smokers and feel like I am playing Assassin’s Creed. We are supposed to return in exactly 23 minutes. We are late.
After lunch we work on a cover story and five of us do covert reconnaissance of a nearby square. We notice a pop-up store which changes weekly, an underground tunnel, and a smokers’ entrance to a private members’ club. B observes someone counting money in a restaurant doorway. Another B spots a man who sits in his car outside an office for ninety minutes without moving. By purchasing a muffin and showing interest in the vendor’s music, H learns where to buy drugs.
At night I ask a passer-by for directions to the Bishop’s Finger pub. He asks if that is something to do with bikes.
The day begins with tall tales and then an organised game about lying. I am disappointed when my story of accidentally killing a tank full of frogs for a school project does not convince. A, however, successfully conceals the true version. We discuss audience handling and how best to create a manifesto.
We also consider how to give a surprise gift, and the unexpected positive ripples it can create in somebody’s life. It is a subtle art. Personal is good … but too personal is creepy. Magical is good … but too magical is freaky. And valuable is good too … but too valuable, and there is an implied obligation to reciprocate. Perhaps the gift itself is the knowledge that somebody out there cares enough to give you a gift.
Using train, foot and tube, I rush over to North Greenwich to meet F&F. I lose my bearings in the strange pedestrian space around what was formerly the Millennium Dome. As I approach the venue, a plane above my head carves a slow trail through the rainclouds.
The bus back into town takes an hour. I talk to a trumpeter who assumes I have been at a massive church gathering. When I reach bed and take off my boots, my entire right foot is covered with angry red and purple bruising. It looks like a truck has driven over my toes.
Some of the group have left, but the remaining members will devise a scratch performance piece today to be delivered on Friday. There is a definite conflict between the real excitement of this project and the general lack of energy in the room after three busy days.
We riff on the division between tea and coffee drinkers and some ideas emerge. Our notes include the words WINDOW OF CONTROL, PAYSLIP HISTORY and THE HIDDEN REFLECTION. Another reconnaissance, which feels very psychogeographical, locates interesting buildings, a usable phonebox, and a local juice seller who charges tourists for directions. I order a rare afternoon gin and tonic to get an extended look at the pub.
The part of me that directs shows becomes anxious at the lack of tangible progress by day’s end. I try to ease off and have faith in the process and the creative people around me.
I hit my old stomping ground of London Bridge to meet B. In an alley down the side of a pub, we relax and talk about writing, cats, zombies and poker. After she leaves, I head to a certain establishment on Middlesex Street one hour before closing time. A man at the door tells me it has closed an hour early.
At breakfast I see a woman who eats only fruit. She has four large plates which do not fit on her tray. One is stacked with watermelon. One is stacked with melon. One is stacked with pineapple. The fourth has a selection of other fruits. The total volume of fruit is slightly greater than the volume of her head. She eats it all.
Rain batters London as we plan what has become The Curious History of Mr Fleet. T is loading up a platform which will deliver audio and text messages to our players. M has brought a massive treasure chest of tea. We scrabble to generate maps, stories, little presents and unexpected experiences. There is talk of another reconnaissance to build an alternative, indoors version. We opt to tough it out and commit to the outdoors version. There is a ukulele rehearsal which seems to last hours.
I leave at 4.15pm to secure a table in the Exmouth Arms before the Friday evening rush. I flit from canopy to canopy through the pouring rain, a bit worried that nobody will turn up. In the pub, I drink a beer called Dark Age, read a Frederick Forsyth novel and leave a pack of cards visible on the table. When, an hour later, the audience arrive in small groups, I tell them about Mr Fleet’s coffee shop and his gentle powers of intuition. Then they read my mind.
The working week concludes in the park, on the site of the largest tea house in London, with vocal stylings from a three-girl ukulele combo and a surprise appearance by a tap dancer. It is a soggy, but strange and beautiful thing.
At drinks afterwards, I feel both elated and sad, buzzing with what we created and pained that we don’t get to do it again next week. People drift off, until the final scramble for the last tube. M and I catch it with seconds to spare, spilling tea and umbrellas.
I realise as the train slows that I didn’t get to say goodbye to H. But she appears out of nowhere, through the barriers at my stop. I wait with her until the night bus comes, then limp in the direction of a late night sandwich.
The fruit lady repeats her breakfast performance. I check out and wander the streets with my case, lingering over coffee, comics and coloured markers.
In the window of Pollock’s Museum and toy shop, faded and bent, I see a miniature cardboard theatre I remember from my childhood. Written on the front of the stage is an enigmatic message I never understood. Out of curiosity, I search the web for it. No hits.