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The Washing Line (Susan Elkin reviews)

Show: The Washing Line

Society: Chickenshed

Venue: Rayne Theatre, Chickenshed. Chase Side, Southgate, London N14 4PE

The Washing Line

4 stars

Jim Jones was a dangerously charismatic American clergyman who founded a commune called “People’s Temple” in California. He was unusual at the time for welcoming both black and white people and treating them as equals. As his operational methods gradually came under scrutiny Jones moved the whole operation to Guyana in 1977. In 1978 it was visited by an American congressman, Leo Ryan, who had questions to ask. Were, for instance, members allowed to leave? He and four of the people with him were shot dead at the airport as they left after which Jones ordered his followers to commit mass suicide. Over 900 people died including 300 children. People of a certain age will recall these events with the same incredulous  horror we felt at the time.

Well, it’s a brave subject for a musical show but Chickenshed has never shied away from difficult things. And it has a big theatrical advantage because it works with large numbers of members across its various activity levels and is used to managing a cast of hundreds. As we file into the spacious main space, configured in a vast horse-shoe which is not quite traverse and not quite in the round, we see dozens of “bodies” still, silent and everywhere you look – laid out like a washing line.

The piece, based on a 2017 Chickenshed Foundation Degree project, tells the story by shifting between 1978 (and earlier) and 2008 when survivors talked to television interviewers. Officials walk among the bodies trying in astonishment to work out what can possibly have happened – and we hear flies buzzing in the sound track which is chilling.

Jonny Morton finds all the revolting charm in Jones which convinces most of his followers that he is God and that they are living in paradise. He preaches, blesses his “children”, sings well  and looks the part in his purple robe over casual clothes. Gemilla Shamruk is strong as his supportive wife too – often acting as a conduit between the commune members and her drug taking, often ruthless, power-crazed husband.

Much of this story evolves in large scale balletic form and there are some fine dance scenes underpinned by music by Dave Carey – always rhythmic, often menacing and usually disturbing. I’m struck too by how many Chickenshed members are fine dancers who make lifts, used a lot in choreography by director Michael Bossisse and the team he works with, look utterly effortless and very dramatic. The big sung numbers – such as the People’s Temple Choir at the beginning of the second half – are vibrant too. And all of that is interspersed  and contrasted with quiet horror of the TV interviews thirty years later and the activities of shocked police and American officials at the time.

At the end we see several minutes of projected footage of the real People’s Temple in which members look positive and happy. Then there are shots of the bodies. It’s so sobering that applause at the end feels like an inappropriate response.

Chickenshed stands for inclusivity and diversity. And one of the many things I admire about it is the way in which cast members who need it are supported by the company with unobtrusive warmth – wheelchairs raced on and off, hands held and guided in dance for example. Yes, this really is theatre for everyone – there are no exceptions – which also achieves a professional standard and, in this case, forces you to think quite hard about cultism and that’s as topical now as it was in the 1970s.

First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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