Category: London

Adrift | now in paperback

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My book about the people, politics, history, and wildlife of London’s canals and rivers – Adrift, A Secret Life of London’s Waterways – is published in paperback today.

‘A compelling exploration of river living’ – Homes & Gardens

‘One of the best waterways books for decades’ – Waterways World

‘Chapter after chapter of utterly captivating prose’ – Caught by the River

‘A serious and fascinating book’ – Hackney Citizen

‘Waterways writing at its finest’ – The Book Barge

‘Babbs is an excellent nature writer’ – The Bookseller

You’ll find Adrift for sale in all good bookshops, in the real world and online, priced £8.99.

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Guardian | Liquid gold

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This feature was first published in the Guardian’s Travel section

I moved onto the water almost three years ago, and one of the best things about living on a boat is being close to nature. This morning I opened the curtains to see a cormorant swimming west-wards, fish like and gleaming, slowly followed by a gaggle of foraging Canada geese. The whole of London’s canal network is designated a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation – it’s a great place for wildlife spotting as well as people watching, a welcome blue-green space amid the capital’s grey.

You don’t have to be a boater to appreciate London’s navigable waterways, but living like this has encouraged me to explore places along less well-trodden towpaths. The usual canal-side attractions couldn’t be busier. Camden Lock, Little Venice, Broadway Market, that flurry of artisan eateries close to Kingsland Basin – all are bustling every weekend. But it is still possible to find some peace and quiet on the urban canal network.

1. Walthamstow Marshes
This Site of Special Scientific Interest lies low in the River Lea’s alluvial flood plain on a bed of silt, gravel and London clay. Over 400 species of plant have been recorded here, with 250 considered regulars. There’s meadow, reed bed and wooded thicket to explore, as well as marshland. Always open, you’re free to roam its paths and boardwalks. It’s one of London’s wildest places.

2. Limehouse Cut
Opened in 1770, this is London’s oldest canal. The poker-straight cut is almost two miles long and connects the Lee Navigation to the Regent’s Canal. Built up along its entire route, it’s a shady and tunnel-like passage. It’s not a desert though – if you walk along its towpath from Bow Lock to Limehouse Basin, you might spot cormorants or great crested grebes. Commercial operations ended at the Basin in 1969, and a modern marina was established in the 1980s. It now hosts around 90 boats, from humble barges to flashy yachts and great sailing ships.

3. Islington Tunnel
A hill lies in the Regent’s Canal’s path between Angel and King’s Cross. Instead of climbing over it via several locks, the waterway cuts straight through. It opened in 1820 and was renovated in 2000. There’s no towpath in the tunnel and in the early days horse-drawn barges had to be ‘legged’ through. The horse was led over the hill to meet the boat at the tunnel exit, while the vessel was propelled through by bargees lying on their backs and pushing it along with their feet. Later mechanised tugs replaced leg power, and then barges got engines of their own. Just under a mile in length, the Islington Tunnel is only accessible by motor boat. A number of organised tours cruise through, including one with a London Canal Museum guide. It runs on selected dates only, costs £8.40 for adults, £6 for kids, and booking in advance is advised.

4. Camley Street Natural Park
This two-acre park sits on the site of a Victorian coal drop, sandwiched between the Regent’s Canal and St Pancras Station. The drop allowed coal to be transferred from train to canal boat, cart or lorry so it could travel onward to multiple destinations around town. The site’s dirty working days long over, it has now been a London Wildlife Trust nature reserve for 30 years. It’s an intricate jungle of pond, marsh, meadow and woodland that interweaves with the canal, expanding out into the waterway with floating platforms and reed beds. The nature reserve even has its own barge moored by St Pancras Lock, home to a floating forest garden of fruit trees, bushes and herbs. It’s open everyday until 4pm in winter, 5pm in summer.

5. Kensal Green Cemetery
One of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’, this canal-side cemetery hosts the likes of Harold Pinter, Wilkie Collins, Antony Trollope and the Brunels. The canal was once an integral part of operations: coffins and mourners would arrive by boat, dropped off at a specially built jetty. Aside from the screams of resident ring-necked parakeets, the older parts of the cemetery are quiet, crumbling into a romantic, ivy-laced collapse. The Friends of Kensal Green run a guided tour every Sunday at 2pm until the end of October, for a donation of £7.

6. Cowley Lock
It’s hard to believe this picturesque part of the Grand Union belongs to London. Close to both the Fray’s River and the River Colne, Cowley is also within walking distance of Little Britain Lake, so called because of its patriotic shape. The Malt Shovel pub, which has a large beer garden, and the Tollhouse Tearooms sit right beside the lock.

Sunday Times | The life aquatic

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This feature was first published in the Sunday Times

The year I turned 30 was the year me and my partner bought our canal boat home. After ten years renting rooms in shared flats, we craved a space of our own. Buying a flat would have been a more sensible investment, but we live in a city where £450,000 is officially considered affordable for a ‘starter home’.

Living aboard isn’t cheap – the boat itself cost tens of thousands of pounds to buy, then there are annual licence fees, insurance, fuel and maintenance costs. But it was something we’d long dreamed of, and properly researched. I lodged aboard a friend’s narrowboat for a month first to learn the ropes. Although avoiding London’s over-inflated property market was a factor, the move wasn’t all about money. We saw it as a chance to try living off-grid, to simplify things and strip back, to have a multi-fuel stove and a set of solar panels.

Plain on the outside, it was our boat’s innards that made us want her. Dark wood floors, oak panelling, painted pine tongue-and-groove, and plenty of brass. The cabin is long, low and narrow, with walls that curve gently inwards. It’s a space you learn to move through in a certain, stooping way. Boat life demands us to be conservative with power, but the cabin is lovely in candle- and firelight, the cosiest place you could possibly be. Flame light is forgiving, it hides the coal dust and cracks.

We’re not pioneers. There have been people living on London’s navigable waterways for decades, although there’s no denying numbers have risen as prices have rocketed on land. Residential moorings in London are rare, so most newcomers cruise rather than moor permanently in one place. It’s a joy to slowly wend your way through London, experiencing life afloat in the north, south, east and west. But, continuous cruisers give up mains water and mains electricity, as well as a fixed address.

It’s important not to idealise life on the water. Living like this is full of its own specific concerns: the fear of running out of fuel to burn and freshwater to wash with, the blight of condensation and damp, flat marine batteries and mysterious leaks. The boat’s climate is tricky to control, freezing in winter, too hot in summer. We’re free of earthly ties but also free of everyday conveniences. We have to deal intimately with our own waste, emptying our caravan-style toilet by hand.

Living in a low impact way and being close to nature are, for me, boating’s greatest appeals. London’s manmade canal network has become increasingly important for wildlife, as natural standing water like ponds and ditches have disappeared. But urban waterways aren’t bucolic, and itinerancy comes with stigma attached. A peripatetic life fascinates some people but confuses others.

It was a shock to discover I had to register as homeless if I wanted to vote. Without a postcode, other things become complicated too, including banking and healthcare. I’m uneasy about my credit rating. I also worry about the future. Currently a haven for a resourceful few, there’s a concern London’s waterways are gradually becoming less open to boats without permanent moorings.

It’s completely legal to continuously cruise across the canal network as long as you move on every two weeks, a right enshrined in the 1995 British Waterways Act. But recently stay times in popular areas have been reduced to seven days, sometimes even less. The Canal and River Trust has also said it won’t renew the licenses of boats without long term moorings that it doesn’t consider to be moving far enough, despite not having the power to define what an acceptable distance is.

While I’m happy with my decision to swap bricks and mortar for a boat, I wouldn’t encourage you to do the same. Many of us are desperate to find a way to be in London that isn’t financially crippling. But, while living aboard works brilliantly for some, it’s a precarious way of living. It’s definitely not for the faint hearted. Nor are boats a solution to London’s housing crisis – that requires fair prices on land.

That said, my boat is very much my home and I believe we should actively protect London’s boating community, both the continuously cruising and the permanently moored. As our capital becomes increasingly homogenous, amid a flood of anodyne new developments and luxury flats, it is the canals with their boats, bustle, weeds and wrecks that offer some much needed idiosyncratic charm.

Adrift | A Secret Life of London’s Waterways

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My new book – Adrift, A Secret Life of London’s Waterways – is published today by Icon Books. It’s about the people, politics, history and wildlife of London’s canals and rivers, journeying by boat from east to west over the course of a year and taking in the River Lea, Lee Navigation, Limehouse Cut, Regent’s Canal and Grand Union.

Steven Cooper in The Bookseller magazine says: ‘perfect for anyone who enjoys a lazy walk along London’s canals. Babbs is an excellent nature writer, evoking the lives and emotions tied to the water.’

@TheBookBarge says: ‘waterways writing at its finest: the breathtaking, boat-eulogising Adrift.’

Sarah Henshaw in Waterways World magazine says: ‘It’s not just the quality of the writing that singles this out as one of the best waterways books for decades, but its timeliness too.’

Ben McCormick in Caught by the River praises: ‘chapter after chapter of utterly captivating prose’, where Babbs ‘captures the character and features of the ever-changing landscape… with the kind of compelling language that makes such an arduous trip a genuine joy.’

SLOWBOAT says: ‘Adrift is a sensitive and thoughtful polemic, and a clear-sighted eulogy to a nomadic way of life.’

Available now in hardback and as an ebook in all good bookshops, in the real world and online.

Adrift | a Q&A

Helen Babbs’ new book Adrift, A Secret Life of London’s Waterways is published by Icon on Thursday 3 March 2016.

What’s Adrift about?

It’s about London’s canals and navigable rivers, exploring the waterways’ people, politics, history and wildlife. It’s about boats, landscape, alternative ways of living. The book travels from east to west over the course of a year, taking in the River Lea, the Lee Navigation, the Limehouse Cut, the Regent’s Canal and part of the Grand Union.

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Why write about London’s waterways?

London’s canals and navigable rivers have been my home for almost three years. Living on the water has given me a new perspective on the city, and as a journalist I felt compelled to document my experiences. The canal network is a really rich seam to delve into as a writer. It’s a long, thin public space with a miscellany of different stories attached.

The waterways – and the life they support, both wild and human – are perhaps a little misunderstood or misrepresented. For example, London’s boaters are sometimes lazily dismissed as hipsters or bums, when in fact I’d describe us as a small community of decent, resourceful folk finding creative ways to live in a capital city.

At the moment, London boating is often only discussed in the mainstream press in the context of property prices, but there’s a lot more to living aboard than saving money on rent or a mortgage. Indeed, my own experience promoting the book so far has seen a national newspaper make up a quote – put words in my mouth that I didn’t say – that suggests I bought a boat simply because I couldn’t afford a mortgage.

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I’m not a spokesperson for the boating community, and the views expressed in the book are just my own. But I do think that, as boaters, if we are open about how things work for us on the water perhaps, at those times when our rights are being undermined or our lives are being made more difficult, it will be easier to ask both policy makers and the wider public for support.

I believe we should actively protect London’s boating community, both the continuously cruising and the permanently moored. Boats bring welcome colour and character, an increasingly rare thing as the capital is smothered by a bland tide of chain stores and luxury flats.

The natural value of the canal network also felt like something really worth exploring – manmade waterways have become increasingly important as natural standing water like ponds and ditches have disappeared. The canal can sometimes be seen simply as an A to B, a commuting route, or as mere decoration for new blocks of flats, but it’s much more than that. For many Londoners, the canal is an important way to connect with nature. It’s a vital green-blue space within the grey.

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Did you buy a boat because you couldn’t afford a flat?

There was a lot more to it, but it was certainly one factor of many. Buying a flat would have been a more sensible financial investment, but I’m a self-employed, low earner living in a city where £450,000 is now officially (and outrageously) considered affordable for a ‘starter home’ and private rents are out of control.

So yes our budget did come into it, but there were more persuasive things that ultimately drew us onto the canal. The boat is allowing us to create a home in tune with the things we care about – respecting the environment, living sustainably. We saw living aboard as a chance to simplify things and strip back. The boat means we have our own set of solar panels and a beautiful cast iron stove, our main source of heat. We’re no longer wedded to the grid, and life aboard has bred a conservatism with power and water that’s surprisingly liberating.

Our home space is not entirely domestic either; it is mechanical, it moves, it is subject to the weather, the water, the landscape. The writer and naturalist Richard Mabey was on to something when he said many of us – wherever we might live – nurse a ‘dream of satisfying two strong and contrasting human drives, to be both settled native and adventurous pioneer’. The boat allows us, demands us, to try to be both.

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Is living on a boat cheap?

That’s a myth. Boats can cost tens of thousands of pounds to buy, plus there are annual licence fees, insurance, fuel and upkeep costs. And monthly rent if you are lucky enough to secure a long term or residential mooring. It depends on the size of your vessel, but yearly expenses can reach well into the thousands if you include routine maintenance like repainting the hull. It is also very time consuming – living on a canal boat is not for the time poor.

Residential moorings in London are rare, so most newcomers continuously cruise rather than moor permanently in one place. It’s a joy to slowly wend your way across the captial’s 100 miles of canal network, experiencing life afloat in the north, south, east and west. But, continuous cruisers give up mains water and mains electricity, as well as the security of a fixed address.

Is daily life difficult?

I wouldn’t swap my boat-home for anything but it is hard work, every single day. Living like this is full of its own specific concerns: the fear of running out of fuel to burn and freshwater to wash with, the blight of condensation and damp, flat marine batteries and mysterious leaks. The boat’s climate is tricky to control, freezing in winter, too hot in summer. We’re free of earthly ties but also free of everyday conveniences. We have to deal intimately with our own waste, emptying our caravan-style toilet by hand.

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What other challenges do you face on the water?

It was a shock to discover I had to register as homeless if I wanted to vote. Without a postcode, things like banking and healthcare become complicated too. I fear for my credit rating. I also worry about the future. There’s a concern that waterways are gradually becoming less open to cruising boats.

It’s completely legal to continuously cruise across the canal network as long as you move on every two weeks, a right enshrined in the 1995 British Waterways Act. But recently stay times in popular areas have been reduced to seven days, sometimes even less. The Canal and River Trust has also said it won’t renew the licenses of boats without long term moorings that it doesn’t consider to be moving far enough, despite not having the power to define what an acceptable distance is.

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What advice would you give a would-be boater?

Do your research first, and not just online. Definitely try out living on a boat before you buy one – hire or rent one, and for a significant period of time so you can really learn the ropes. I lodged aboard a friend’s canal boat for a month before we decided to buy ours; it was a crucial experience. It was a chance to learn the intricacies of life afloat, and it helped me decide whether or not I had what it takes to live like this.

While I’m happy with my decision to swap bricks and mortar for a boat, I actually wouldn’t actively encourage anyone else to do the same. Many of us are desperate to find a way to be in London that isn’t financially crippling. But, while living aboard works brilliantly for some, it’s a difficult way of living. It’s definitely not for the faint hearted. Nor are boats a solution to London’s housing crisis – that requires fair prices and rent control on land.

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The book is about a lot more than the practicalities and politics of living on the waterways – what are some of the other central themes?

The landscape and urban nature are really important strands that run throughout the book, as is history. For example, I spent some time tracing London’s lost canals, in both south and west London. The canalised part of the River Fleet running from King’s Cross to Blackfriars is the most well known lost canal, but the book also looks at the Grand Surrey Canal, the Croydon Canal, the Grosvenor Canal, the Kensington Canal and the Cumberland Spur, which have all disapeared but left their ghosts.

Are manmade, urban waterways like the Regent’s Canal really that good for nature?

Very much so. A place where rough land meets torpid water has potency, and the mixing up of the wet and the dry along the Regent’s Canal means it can support much wildlife. Artificial waterways are part of our ecosystem; in fact they have become increasingly important ‘natural’ features as traditional ponds have disappeared. The whole of London’s canal system was designated a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC) back in 1986. The SINC citation states that ‘London’s network of canals fulfil an important function in allowing nature into heavily built-up environments’.

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But aren’t boats bad for wildlife?

More boats mean more disturbance and less aquatic and marginal vegetation, but also more movement and in turn more scouring, flushing and induced flow. The Regent’s Canal’s water quality, for example, is surprisingly good. But, its growing popularity, with people on foot and on bicycles as much as on boats, is also its vulnerability. As towpath traffic increases, so does the amount of litter gathering under bridges, around weirs and at locks.

I am biased, but as a live-aboard boater I think the positive impact our community has outweighs any negatives. It is often boaters who feel most compelled to haul rubbish out of the water, after all. Urban canals are not a sterile places, and in many ways it is the imperfections that make them interesting. It is possible to enjoy the coupling of the natural and the man-made, even the coot building a magnificent plastic bag and bottle nest. The litter troubles me, but the fact a cormorant can ignore it and continue to fish gives me hope.

© Helen Babbs 2016

Sunday Telegraph | Why I swapped bricks and mortar for a boat

Helen Babbs

This feature was first published in the Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine

It’s a chilly February morning and I’m struggling to get out of bed. That period of indefinite length between getting up and the cabin warming up is a difficult one to step into. So I stay horizontal, listening to a chorus of creaking rope and fender, the canal’s particular slap and gurgle, and the resident coots’ territorial shouts and squeaks.

It’s been a hard night. I got in late after dinner with friends and didn’t light a fire, didn’t even fill a hot water bottle. I thought a nightcap of single malt was enough and brushed my teeth in my coat. The cold crept in in the small hours, so penetrating it woke me up. My interrupted sleep was a cruel reminder that my home is actually a machine, one made of steel and partly submerged in water. Unless the fire is lit, the cabin temperature can drop dramatically if it’s cool out.

It’s hard to remember what it was like to wake up on dry land. I moved onto the boat almost three years ago, the year I turned 30, thinking a new decade demanded a new approach. After ten years renting rooms in shared flats, I was desperate for a space with only me and my boyfriend in it.

Buying bricks and mortar is far wiser, but self-employed, low earners don’t get mortgages easily and we live in a city where a starter home is considered affordable at £450,000. That isn’t to say living aboard is cheap – boats can cost tens of thousands of pounds to buy, plus there are annual licence fees, insurance, fuel and upkeep costs.

But living afloat was something we’d long daydreamed of. We researched it heavily, visiting potential craft across the country. I lodged aboard a friend’s boat for a month to learn the ropes. We eventually found ours in Derbyshire – she’s unremarkable on the outside but her cabin is lovely, all oak and pine and brass. Buying her was both terrifying and thrilling; the learning curve after moving in was steep.

The boat is allowing us to create a home in tune with the things we care about – respecting the environment, living sustainably. We have our own set of solar panels and a beautiful cast iron stove, our main source of heat. We’re no longer wedded to the grid, and life aboard has bred a conservatism with power and water that’s surprisingly liberating. The boat also brings us close to nature. We share the waterways with gothically good-looking cormorants and herons, dancing grey wagtails and pipistrelle bats.

London’s waterways are supporting a growing number of boats. The people who live on them aren’t hipsters or bums; they’re just decent folk finding creative ways to live in the city. Our neighbours are sometimes young families, sometimes couples or friends sharing, sometimes people on their own. It’s a low-impact community that I think we should celebrate. Boats bring boroughs welcome colour and character, an increasingly rare thing as London’s rough edges are smoothed over by a bland tide of chain stores and luxury flats.

Still, it’s important not to romanticise boat life. Residential moorings are rare and many boaters continuously cruise, moving to a new place every two weeks. Cruisers give up mains water, mains electricity and a flushing loo. We have to deal intimately with our own toilet waste – there are special sluices where it can be poured away by hand. It’s not for the time-poor, the impractical or the squeamish.

Boat life can also feel precarious. On an urban waterway your home is exposed to the anti-social antics of some towpath users – we’ve found strangers on our roof at 4am and been pelted with bottles and stones. Boaters are also vulnerable to changing licensing rules, reduced stay times in popular areas, and once public moorings being made private.

Without the security of a permanent postcode, banking and healthcare become complicated too. It was a shock to discover I had to register as homeless if I wanted to vote. I worry about my credit rating. While I’m happy living on a boat, and have no plans to retreat to dry land, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. Sometimes it’s a joy but others it’s a drain. It is always a big commitment.

Greenpeace | London Can’t Wait for Solar

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‘London is failing on solar, risking its decentralised energy and climate targets. The new Mayor can change the capital’s poor performance record, and ensure the future is bright for solar in the city.’

Really proud to have worked as a copy editor on this report from Greenpeace UK and Energy for London, published in February, which looks at solar energy in my home city. It outlines how the new Mayor of London can start a solar revolution in 2016.

Review | Plexus

imageThis review was written for Animations Online

A collaboration between director Aurelien Bory and dancer Kaori Ito, ‘Plexus’ sees Compagnie 111 wowing a London International Mime Festival audience once again. Bory presented his portrait of flamenco dancer Stephanie Fuster at the Barbican in 2014; this year he seeks to portray something of the life of Ito.

It’s a performance that is epic and yet confined, personal but impersonal. The stage is occupied by a huge cube formed of tightly strung, flexible wires, which Ito moves within. The structure has microphones embedded in it so it is both a set and an instrument. Swathes of fabric move inside the space like creatures, some manipulated by Ito and others independent of her. The lighting is architectural and the deep shadows geometric. Combined, the light and sound design have a powerful effect – obscuring, transforming, pixellating. Both are incredibly tactile.

Trapped inside this landscape, Ito writhes. Her physical prowess, her frustration, her pain are all laid bare within this box. Her movements speak of conflict, mastery and power. By the performance’s end I think we are all in awe of Ito. So yes we learn about her – the way her muscles rip and her mind ripples – but we also remain distant. She is shadowy, an enigma; sometimes huge, sometimes small, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes mighty. Always hard to grasp hold of.

Bory explains in his director’s note that the word plexus has several relevant meanings: originally it meant intertwining, then networks of nerves or blood vessels, and now it is used in anatomy to refer to the muscles’ inner mechanics. He says that, in portraying Ito, he wanted to explore the “innermost marks her art has carved into her living body” and how the “external entity of dance has entered her”. He achieves his vision, creating a piece of physical theatre that is both muscular and cerebral. For those of us watching, the effect of Ito suspended inside this strange stringed space is fascinating, hypnotic and visually stunning.

Review | Light

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This review was written for Animations Online

Theatre Ad Infinitum’s pacy new show takes us on a journey into a dark, dystopian future where we have gone beyond the smart phone and embraced the implant. Using no set and barely any props, the company cleverly uses brights lights and deep darkness to construct a terrifying future where everything we ever think of is collected as data.

The invasive new implant technology will apparently free people from terror, crime, any evil you like. Except torture by the authorities of course. The implant isn’t optional but if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. Sounds strangely familiar… ‘Light’ was inspired by the revelations of Edward Snowden and starkly explores a possible outcome of our willingness, or otherwise, to give up our personal information.

The show is technically brilliant. The actors use torches and LED strip lights to create the futuristic landscape they move through. Little red lights cleverly show thought data being sent and captured; green lights represent freedom from being watched. A dirty red light indicates we are in someone’s ‘mind space’. The humble torch becomes a star here, casting fantastically atmospheric beams of light that pick up every dust particle swirling on stage.

The sound design (by Chris Bartholomew) is equally powerful and incredibly effective – both the sound effects and the music. The actors are completely in sync with the sound, which adds the essential extra layer to bring their world to life. The cast are brilliant mimes, convincingly occupying the light and sound space they create, and communicating without spoken words. There are voiceless shouts, sometimes deciphered by surtitles, but most of the meaning comes from their stellar movements.

The enveloping darkness that hides the hands behind the moving lights is a vehicle for a kind of puppetry – the actors manipulate the beams and tiny handheld lights in way that gives them independent life and new meaning. A torture scene behind a white sheet uses shadow play to powerful effect, illustrating psychological torture especially well and recalling the catalogue of techniques used by the CIA and recently made public. This is a vision of the future but it is very much rooted in the present, a present where David Cameron is currently pushing for the police and secret services to have even more access to our data.

Within all this is the story of a relationship breakdown and a soap-opera style revelation about who an agent’s mother is. In itself the story isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but as a piece of visual, physical theatre you will be gripped. Director George Mann says he was “filled with a sense of urgency to make the play”, describing it as a way for him to “express his deep concern about the kind of society we are sleepwalking into.” He does a good job. I recommend watching ‘Light’ in conjunction with 1927’s ‘Golem’ (the delivery is completely different but the message strikingly similar) and ‘Citizenfour’, Laura Poitras’ Oscar nominated documentary. It would be a triple bill of viewing pleasure but one that would really make you think.

Review | The Possible Impossible House

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This review was written for Animations Online

Two actors, a few sheets of cardboard, some simple projections and a table full of potential sound effects are all Forced Entertainment need to concoct an amusing story for children. ‘The Possible Impossible House’ is the company’s first production for youngsters. It’s pared back and minimalist, relying on the ability of our storytellers to engage us, rather than sparkling visuals.

One actor plays the lead storyteller, standing behind a long table and catching projected images on large sheets of brown card. The other actor sits at a different table, one loaded with objects including a keyboard, several wine glasses, two packs of dried peas and some stalks of celery. This actor is charged with creating strange music and evocative sound effects for the unfolding story. The actors are on rotation from the company and could be different each time; we watch Richard Lowden and Cathy Naden.

As we move about the possible impossible house, we meet a doodle of a girl and agree to help her hunt for a missing spider, meeting a mouse, some soldiers, a flock of angry birds and even a rhino along the way. Surprisingly it is the interaction between the two actors as they come up with the story – rather than the tale itself – that is the highlight of the performance. Cathy, who creates the sound effects, is genuinely funny in her eagerness and imaginative search for the right sound. Richard’s gentle exasperation with her is strictly jovial and the two riff of each other beautifully.

While watching them work together is lots of fun, the story and the way it is illustrated just isn’t that exciting. I find myself wishing for more from both, especially the visuals, something more dynamic and playful. The images projected onto the sheets of cardboard held by Richard are mainly static photographs, sprinkled with a few scratchily hand-drawn characters that are animated in a very simplistic, naive kind of way. It is only right at the very end that a stack of cardboard boxes is used to create something more visually interesting. While I’m more than happy to spend an hour in Richard and Cathy’s company, I leave feeling that neither the plot nor the projections quite reflect what a ‘possible impossible house’ could surely be.