Review by Harry Bower.
In 1987, thirty-one lives perished in the infamous Kings Cross fire, as the ticket hall went up in a fireball ignited by a stray cigarette. Buried in the cemetery was a victim so burned that the science of the day was unable to identify them. Decades later we understand Body 115 - so named because of their mortuary tag number – to be the body of 72-year-old Alexander Fallon. Fallon was a homeless Scot, understood to be sheltering in Kings Cross when the wooden escalator caught fire and, well, the rest is history. Already the focus of a book, the story of body 115 is well documented. Now, for the first time, the tale has inspired a stage show.
Playing at the Hope Theatre, Body 115 is a seventy-minute one-man blend of drama and poetry. The protagonist is a man on a journey to better understand himself and the circumstances he finds himself in. Both physically and metaphorically the man explores the underbelly of London, visits beautiful Milan (in the rain) and gritty Paris, the quarters unkept and out of sight for tourists. On his journey he is accompanied by the ghost of Body 115 – goading and provoking thought from the start, encouraging an intrusive introspective investigation. If that sounds a bit Dante, it’s because that’s the intention – the play describing Body 115 as the ghostly Virgil equivalent. It’s an effective way of storytelling because it’s familiar, and writer-performer Jan Noble does a fine job of not allowing that familiarity to breed laziness or boredom.
In his role as performer, Noble is a dominating force of nature, whipping the audience into submission with the lyrical verse and entrancing us with intense eye contact. Sometimes literally spitting his words out he commits fully to the storytelling in a way which gives those watching no choice but to get on board. There is a challenge here in portraying both hero and ghost, achieved largely to great success by Noble allowing the ghost to inhabit his body, his limbs creaking and his voice croaking in contrast to the otherwise generic though charming lead vessel.
Lighting by Tom Turner is simple but effective, each moment with its own LED wash matching the overall tone of the verse. In such a restrictive space - which is an observation not a criticism; The Hope is a wonderful pub theatre – there is not a great deal of opportunity to be particularly innovative in LX design, nor does the piece particularly require it, and the same can be said of set and props. The performance is complimented by a thick jacket, sodden in the rain, and a large old suitcase, exhausted and knackered but with a strange stage presence to it. Both are well-used throughout, director Justin Butcher ensuring the performance never feels static. Movement is used to good effect also, the performer sitting, standing, and moving around the space reflecting the pace and stoicism (or lack thereof) of the spoken word.
Travelling between three countries with no set by design places all the emphasis on the writing. For me, this is where I struggled to invest. While there are some beautiful parts of the show which had me spellbound (the part about the sea is a particular standout), throughout I found myself struggling to keep up with the story. Perhaps I lack the required imagination, or, it could be suggested Body 115 isn’t explicit enough in its boundary setting and narrative. At times I found some of the words too abstract, and the mix of traditional drama and poetry uncomfortable. That’s not uncomfortable in a provocative and thoughtful way, but uncomfortable in that I couldn’t get my head around what was actually happening, and why it mattered. The show relies, I think, quite heavily upon its audience to interpret much of its storytelling, which by its very nature gives each audience member a unique experience.
There will undoubtedly be parts of Body 115 which I resonated with and which moved me (the themes of loss/grief), and parts which resonate with others where they lacked impact for me. That’s the beauty of theatre. And it’s why I would recommend anyone with a spare hour and a half in North London heads to the Hope Theatre before Body 115 closes on 13 May. Though I haven’t fallen in love with the format, it is a unique and powerful delivery method for a fascinating tale of one man’s journey which is both relatable and performed with class.
Body 115 plays at The Hope Theatre, above The Hope and Anchor Pub in Islington, until 13 May. For more information and tickets visit: https://www.thehopetheatre.com/productions/body-115/
Photos by Giulia Vannucci