Two major events in Margate this week. On Friday, the governor of the Bank of England hooked up with Tracey Emin to announce JMW Turner’s appearance on the new £20 bank note. On Thursday to Saturday, Will Adamsdale’s new show – created with me and Lloyd Hutchinson – was unleashed at the Theatre Royal on an unsuspecting world. It’s not my place to say which of those two events is more eloquent about the current state of the UK – the Canadian bank boss celebrating the arts in a UKIP stronghold; or “this spring’s small-scale theatre smash” (to quote the trailer) exploring nationality and humour. What I can confirm, as I return home with sand between my toes, about £150 poorer after a fab if freezing family trip to retro fun park Dreamland, is that Margate was an ace and apposite place to launch The Joke, and that we’re all missing it already.
I’d not been to, ahem, “Shoreditch-on-Sea” before, and I’m here to report that that hipster reputation seems, to me at least, to be slightly jumping the gun. The real Shoreditch is altogether thinner on amusement arcades and boarded-up Primarks. Yes, the Old Town is full of retro clothing, vintage furniture stores and cupcake cafes. But hike five minutes up the high street, and you’ve straddled a pretty colossal cultural and economic divide. The old, trad Margate remains, in short, very much in evidence, and doesn’t look like it’ll be growing a big Victorian beard and drinking cocktails out of a jam-jar anytime soon.
We had quite varied audiences over our three nights at the gorgeous Theatre Royal – the second oldest working theatre in the country – and I’m sure that variety reflects the fact that Margate 2016 is in no way a monoculture. On Thursday and Saturday nights, our crowds quickly got into the groove of our eccentric show, which plays games in its opening moments with the performance-audience dynamic. (One punter tweeted after Saturday’s show that it was the funniest thing he’d seen onstage since Bottom Live – incongruous, yes, but to a die-hard Rik Mayall fan like me, very much a name-check to be savoured.) Friday’s crowd, on the other hand, threw us some curveballs. Which was surprising in the moment, and yet splendid in principle. It’s a brand new show, and we want to discover all the different ways audiences might react to it, even (especially) if they include enthusiastic wrong-end-of-the-stick grabbing and cheerful belligerence.
It was, in short, a rollercoaster ride – which is what you want when you visit the seaside, right? Not the least of the oddities was that we arrived wondering whether our claustrophobic story (it’s about three men getting trapped) could work in a large proscenium-arch space with about fifty-five visible exits. And now we’re ending the week struggling to imagine how it will ever work anywhere else. Our small-scale show ended up working beautifully in the Theatre Royal, the architecture and scale of which helped us ratchet up the epic dimensions of its denouement (which we were still devising when we arrived last Monday). Now, the challenge is to retain that cosmic scope even as we shrink the show back down to studio size in time for Norwich tomorrow night. We can’t wait to get cracking.
Brian Logan, Margate, 24 April.
Catch The Joke at CPT from 17 May – 4 June. FIND OUT MORE