Time Out finds 25 miles of electric flex and a new style of vaudeville down in the re-opened Shunt Vaults
Next time you’re spewed out of the Northern Line with the commuter crowds at London Bridge, look for a small, unmarked door. Here, somewhere between the bleeping exit-barriers and the obligatory Starbucks, lies the entrance to Shunt Vaults. Find your way in, and you’ll find yourself in a very different kind of underground.
‘People who come here feel they’ve made a discovery,’ says David Rosenberg, one of the ten-strong collective which, since 2004, has made its home in this cavernous performing arts/bar-space. Avant-garde art- and theatremakers often seem over-dependent on vaguely auspicious notions like ‘discovery’ or ‘performative space’. But down in Shunt Vaults, they genuinely have the bricks and mortar to underpin them: pass through the wood-panelled atrium and you’re plunged into industrial gothic; a long, shadowy tunnel of railway arches, whose brick curves recede like a giant pair of parallel mirrors before and behind you.
‘It’s very resonant for people,’ says Shunt founder Mischa Twitchin, and Rosenberg agrees: ‘When you consider the various elements and the place itself, there isn’t another space like this in London.’ Experiences differ: some come for the music; others for the impromptu theatrical cabaret; more (and this is where Shunt turns a profit) for the late-night bar and spectacle at the weekend.
‘The lounge has proved to be a project in its own right,’ says Twitchin, with mild understatement (25 miles of electrical cable were used in the recent renovations). ‘But even after ten on a Friday, you can switch the lights off for five minutes and do something insane.’
Variety, as well as discovery, is a watchword. Last week, a Spanish adult puppet show rubbed shoulders with Cardboard Citizens, the acclaimed homeless theatre company. This week, Cardboard Citizens are replaced by ‘Home Sweet Home’, an installation where lounge-goers erect cardboard flat-packed houses which they can decorate or mar at whim. Shunt’s even diversified into bringing in text-based companies: a Paines Plough series of after-work shorts last autumn was a critical success. Every week, there’s a mixture of installed, curated, and devised pieces – longer performances may be found in crypt-like studio spaces. The programme ranges from the undergraduate-style experimental, to the brilliantly bizarre. But, when you’re paying to access the space not a specific show, you don’t feel short-changed if the work’s still rough around the edges. ‘In conventional theatre,’ says Twitchin, ‘the show is selling the venue. Here, the space is providing the show: we don’t charge performers rent, and we don’t pay them.’
For lounge-goers, it provides a performative tasting menu, which doesn’t eat up your whole evening, or sell itself as a total experience. You’re free to move in and out and back to the bar: a leisure format which appeals to the cut-and-paste generation . Needless to say Shunt attracts a youthful crowd: artier types on weekdays; partiers at the weekend. But its diverse programming and profitability has enticed the Arts Council too, which proposes to double its funding (from £68,000 to £153,000) in this spending round.
When it comes to devised and physical work, the Shunt collective contends that performers get exposure to an audience which reaches beyond their peers, something which even the reputable scratch nights at, say, BAC don’t necessarily offer. Despite opening in 2004 with a total site-specific show – ‘Tropicana’ – they wanted from the very beginning, says Rosenberg, to ‘have a theatre-cabaret element as a platform for emerging artists.’ As Rosenberg’s fellow curator Louise Mari argues, cash isn’t the only way to help: ‘We don’t provide the readies, but there’s technical and emotional support, and access to all we’ve built up over the years.’
The collective, which has been together for almost ten years, has something of the energy, camaraderie and range of performance skills of a Victorian vaudeville troop. But unlike vaudevillians, they have an extraordinary space that, for the next few years at least, they can call home.
See www.shunt.co.uk for further details.
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