Camden People’s Theatre, London – until 25 May 2019
Getting to Camden People’s Theatre is becoming more complicated. The direct route from Euston is blocked by HS2 barriers, and soon lorries will start rumbling up and down Drummond Street, one of London’s most likeable street. The behemoth railway project will reshape this part of town, perhaps for better but undoubtedly for worse if, as the local residents do, you will have to endure the destruction of local amenities and many years of building works, with no compensation – unlike those who live in the Chilterns.
Camden People’s Theatre tackles HS2 head on with an ingenious, chaotic and highly enjoyable lecture-cum-performance-cum-community-theatre show. Artistic director Brian Logan takes the stage to deliver what appears to be a rather untheatrical HS2 primer, explaining how the show takes its title from Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Levelled Churchyard’, written as he supervised excavation of bodies from Old St. Pancras Churchyard, around the corner, for an 1860s railway. HS2 includes the removal of St. James’s Gardens, the graveyard of a former church next to Euston Station. It is said to be the largest exhumation in European history – 63,000 bodies.
Human Jam soon veers off its powerpoint course and, in Ghostwatch style, the graveyard takes over. Enter Shamira Turner, channelling a remarkable number of those buried at St. James’s from Protestant rabble rouser Lord George Gordon to auctioneer Henry Christie and Antipodean explorer Matthew Flinders. However, the character who dominates is forgotten 18th century radical Thomas Spence who advocated common ownership of land. Now robbed of the only land he owned, his burial plot, Spence confronts the right to develop and profit from the land that is part and parcel of HS2.
Turner is excellent, giving a skilled and spirited performance. The show then opens its doors to its neighbours, literally, as a group of local take the stage to make their feelings known and to sing a protest song by Richard Ryan, another occupant of St. James’s, powered by Turner’s gorgeous voice. Human Jam is precisely the type of show Camden People’s Theatre should be producing: fully engaged with its community, angry but imaginative, chaotic and messy, and shining a strong, searching light on those in power.