Great ideas for theatre shows can start to feel less great when they come into contact with reality – and at CPT, we were aware that our new project, Fog Everywhere, could easily fall into that category. The plan was to make a theatre show that invited young Londoners to articulate their feelings about growing up in a city that’s poisoning them – via air pollution, of course, which is doing young people in particular significant physiological and mental damage. We can verify that that’s the case: the world’s leading researchers on the subject, at the Lung Biology Group at Kings College London, are our partners on the project.
The flaw in our plan – the eagle-eyed among you may already have spotted it – was that it was devised before we actually spoke to the young people themselves. But in May and June, we did just that. Over five weeks this spring, we partnered with Westminster Kingsway College near Kings Cross to undertake research and development on our show. Myself and trusty sidekick Dominic Garfield of the mighty HighRise Theatre sat down with a cast of seven 16-18-year-olds to canvas their response to London’s shocking air quality, and whether it was affecting their lives.
Londoners won’t care, Dom had already warned me. A Londoner himself, he pointed out that the native population can be perversely proud of their city’s filthy environment. Look at the musical style most associated with the capital: it’s called grime. We certainly found some grime fans (in both sense of the word) among our cast. Juan couldn’t get fussed about London pollution: in his native Colombia, he says, there’s so much more to worry about. Emily was more concerned, and wanted to talk about it – in the form of rap music. Dom and she collaborated (“Broom broom you trampy car/ Fucking up my lungs, fucking up my heart”) and a scene was born.
Of course, there’s no monolithic answer to whether or not Young People care about London air pollution. Because there’s no such thing as Young People, just young people – with as many, varied and inconsistent opinions as the rest of us. And so, over five weeks, we built a work-in-progress that wrestled the issue – and those opinions – into some kind of submission. Was it the show I imagined before I set foot in that rehearsal room? It was not. Was I delighted by what the young cast came up with? I certainly was. The Fog Everywhere that emerged was more abstract, more emotional, more far-reaching than I’d expected. It came at the subject – because this is how the cast seemed naturally to come at the subject – via their own personal experiences, rather than via the politics, or the cultural history, or the shocking data that I brought into the room when rehearsals began.
So here’s a scene about Phoebe’s panic attacks, that may or may not have anything to do with air pollution (which is strongly linked to mental ill-health among the young). Here’s a scene about Tobi’s excitement that he’s about to buy his first car (emissions from diesel vehicles cause 23,500 premature deaths each year), and another about how difficult it is to flirt when you’re wearing a dust-mask. Here’s a competition to see who can inflate the biggest balloon, and here’s a squadron of teenagers striding into the thick smog of an uncertain future.
Our work-in-progress sharing last month went down a storm. We haven’t solved the problem of air pollution yet – we’re saving that for November, when the show (plus a wraparound programme of talks, walks and workshops) premieres, and when Sadiq Khan’s new charge on toxic vehicles kicks in. But it felt like something was brewing, some valuable articulation of a response to pollution that isn’t heard in the debates between government and pressure groups, nor seen behind the stats and gaudy headlines. This is what it looks like: trying to be young, alive and carefree when not just the system (they’re used to that) but the atmosphere itself starts conspiring against you. Come and join us in November: we can promise you something vital and different, if not exactly a breath of fresh air.