KEN TOWL takes hope, and much joy, from last week’s Liberty Festival, where deaf, disabled and neurodivergent artists injected some much-needed culture into the borough. Photos by PAUL FULLER
The Liberty Festival, which landed in Croydon last weekend, represented the sort of imaginative arts programming that puts much of the rest of the Borough of Culture to shame.
Liberty is the Mayor of London’s flagship disability arts festival, which was bookended by comedy on the Friday evening and a finale featuring dance, poetry, music and painting around the Fairfield Halls’ venues on the Sunday. With not a fibreglass giraffe in sight,
While Croydon Council may be having a laugh, what with awarding arts grants to their mates and big business, the audience in the Ashcroft Theatre on Friday had the opportunity to chortle with not a penny changing hands.
The pricing policy purported to divide punters up by the way they laughed, or rather by what they could afford. A chuckle ticket was £10 for anyone who had “a bit of spare cash”, a giggle ticket was for those who could “afford to pay” £5, and a chortle ticket was for anyone who felt “that having to pay would prevent them from attending”.
At the Liberty Festival, they don’t just talk inclusivity; they deliver it.
And laugh we did.
Practised compere Aaron Simmonds announced that the lineup was a roster of deaf, disabled and neurodivergent comics.
Immediately, he leant into his theme. “I won’t say bum,” he said, looking stage left at the sign language interpreter, where the audience duly caught her making a sign for “bum”.
Now that our attention was where he wanted it, Simmonds deadpanned, “I won’t say willy.” Funny, puerile and pointed all at once.
Fortunately, Simmonds got serious after this and did his duty as far as health and safety was concerned. After all, like Simmonds, there were people present with mobility issues.
“In the event of a fire, in this very wooden building,” he announced, “we’re all fucked!”
He moved on the compere’s usual role, a bit of spontaneous, audience interaction. “What do you do?” he asked a woman in the front row. “I’m a nurse,” she said. After a few seconds, Simmonds retorted with “People would have clapped two years ago.”
So, of course, people clapped. “Oh, don’t be silly,” he said, “It’s not Thursday.”
Next on was Steve Day, the country’s only deaf comedian. “If there are any others, I haven’t heard about them.”
He had been to the bank, he said, and been very upset by the manager, until he realised that the manager had said “Your account”.
Day mixed a lot of deft one-liners with anecdotes about his family and the Midlands before building to a story about his experience at the torch-bearing ceremony at the London Paralympics in 2012 that highlighted the total lack of empathy of then London Mayor, Boris Johnson. It was also very, very funny. Seek out Steve Day and watch him if you can.
Next up were Hannah Harris, who had quite a stage presence, I think, but didn’t stay long enough to leave much of an impression (we were told afterwards that this was only her third-ever live performance) and then Variety D, a powerhouse stream of consciousness performer who dealt out the fastest comedy I have ever heard.
Top of the bill was self-described “wobbly woman” Francesca Martinez, who gave us a powerful mixture of comedy and biography that focused on attitudes towards disability and social class. “I was under pressure to go to a special school – and I don’t mean Eton”.
She explained that getting her role in Grange Hill had effectively saved her from years of systematic bullying at school, whether by teachers or pupils. A memorable line was provided by one of her bullies, a girl who had said, “No one would go out with you, apart from Jesus!”
And so to Sunday evening, and the finale, which kicked off with the Candoco Dance Company (Anne-Gaëlle Thiriot and Kimberley Harvey). I know that one of their vintage shell suits was fuchsia and turquoise because they told me so in their description for the blind and partially sighted at the beginning of their performance.
What followed was a poignant reflection on the body’s limitations as well as its grace, tempered with the humour that inevitably develops between like-minded souls who work closely together. One exchange between them: “I like her because she knows the nooks and crannies of movement,” answered with “I like her because she is the Indiana Jones of dance”, reminded me of the Two Ronnies.
And then we were led upstairs to the Talawa Theatre for a performance by the Inner Vision Orchestra. This was a revelation. Made up of blind and partially-sighted musicians from England, Sri Lanka, Japan and Colombia, the orchestra fuses the traditions of their homelands with the styles of many others to make a unique medley of music.
It is surprisingly effective and evocative. The first instrumental sounded like jazz but with more discipline, classical, perhaps, but… bouncier?
Meanwhile, artist Rachel Gadsden, at the side of the auditorium, painted whatever the music inspired in her and, as we listened, forms started to take shape.
The band played A-Begging I Will Go from the English folk canon, and then the lovely Mexican folk song, Cielito Lindo (which took me back to March this year, when I heard it sung so beautifully by Indianna Scorziello in Machinal by the Theatre Workshop Coulsdon).
The cross-cultural combination of instruments, concertina, piano, viola, sitar, and other less familiar ones, brought a cohesion to the eclectic mix, so that the Tamil love song leant into pop music chords and a jazz-inflected cacophony twisted itself into a rendering of Greensleeves and became, for want of a better term… Baroque-and-roll.
The jazz standard Autumn Leaves threatened to tip into all-out Indo-Bossanova. Above all, the Inner Vision Orchestra taught us that music is the birthright of all of humanity and that something joyful can result from a collaboration of cultures, reflecting the Liberty Festival’s message that art must be for everyone.
The weekend’s festival was co-ordinated by a group called the Drunken Chorus, whose next project in Croydon is the annual Bit of a Do in October. Watch this space!
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