A chapter from Twenty Theatres To See Before You Die, published by Penned in the Margins
Holbeck Underground Ballroom
The first time I saw Alan Lane, artistic director of Slung Low, was at a conference about the relationship between theatres and their audiences. He was striding across the stage, quite literally berating the attendees — mostly senior professionals from theatres across the country for whom this was supposed to be a pleasant day out from the office, swapping anecdotes and munching pastries with their peers. In impassioned, eloquent terms he was expressing his frustration with British theatre, with its repeated failure to speak to the lives of the majority of those that pay for it through their taxes. He threw his arms about expansively, visibly angry, red in the face — a rage both intimidating and entirely magnificent.
I had just given a rather more sedate talk about why I think the continuing existence of theatres offers reasons for hope in our troubled times. I spoke about the small transformations I’d witnessed on the stage — like the time an audience member agreed to take their clothes off in an act of solidarity with the performer. I hoped that by illustrating what theatre has already achieved, I would point to what it might in the future. But listening to Lane, I couldn’t shake an unease that I was giving theatre too much free rein. After all, what is going on in a lot of theatres in this country is not the acts of generosity and bravery I was going out of my way to highlight. It is being charged too much money to watch bad musicals and thoughtless remounts of Shakespeare, an artform preoccupied not with challenging the status quo but upholding it. And if you believe theatre has the capacity not only to change people’s lives but to change the world (which may or may not be the same thing), then that seems a gross dereliction of duty.
So there is reason to be angry with theatre. In The Shape of a Pocket, John Berger tells us, ‘love is the best guarantee against idealisation’. The truth is that Alan Lane’s blistering, magnificent fury is born from the same infatuation with theatre as mine. A faith in its ability to change the world. But I wanted to see what the reality of Lane’s vision for theatre is like for myself. Lane’s blistering, magnificent fury is born from the same infatuation with theatre as mine. A faith in its ability to change the world
Slung Low’s home, the HUB, is situated in Holbeck, an inner-city area of Leeds, in an industrial estate between the railway and the city. To reach it I walk through a stretch of bumpy, overgrown wasteland full of fly-tipped junk, the remnants of bonfires. It is one of those neglected spots that is, in fact, when you look closely, verdant with life; clusters of wild flowers and brambles grow here, feather-headed dandelions that bob in the breeze. The wind skims over the grass, making it shimmer like an ocean.
Beneath the railway tracks are a box factory, a car mechanics and this theatre. The HUB occupies five dusty railway arches, a stone’s throw from the heart of Leeds and its shiny new office blocks, yet it seems I have entered a different realm. In the yard outside there’s a stack of shipping containers, a yellow skip, an old, musty caravan, several bathtubs full of red tulips and two sheds with signs reading The Hickling Wing and The Sir Peter Jonas Wing: they contain the toilets. 
On the wall at the front of the site is a mural — a mosaic of broken tiles in clashing reds, greens, yellows, purples and blues. The tiles show a wild landscape of plant life and dragonflies, reflecting the wasteland opposite. The flora and fauna are sheltered beneath an umbrella, and between their leaves are insets carrying quotes: ‘I’m a survivor. My whole life has been surviving’; ‘I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.’
These are the words of local women involved in sex work. In 2014, Holbeck made the headlines when it became the site of the first legalised red-light district in the UK. The mural was created in 2015 by the artist Carrie Reichardt with residents alongside the volunteers and service users of Basis, a charity supporting women involved in sex work. It is no coincidence that this is the first thing that greets you at the HUB. It’s a public statement about who this place belongs to — a counterpoint to the royal arms and brass plaques bearing the names of dignitaries that adorn so many public buildings. As Lane pointed out in his talk, only the things that are valued in a place get built into the brickwork. ‘TRUST ME, THIS IS ART,’ states a tile in the corner of the mural.
HUB stands for Holbeck Underground Ballroom, a rather grand name that is at odds with the mildewed walls, beaten-up furniture and the occasional scurrying of a rat somewhere out of sight. But it hints at the magic that is hidden in this unlikely corner of a Leeds industrial estate. ‘All are welcome — come & join the Fairy Portal Camp,’ reads a sign in the foyer. As I wander through the interconnected arches, I find inexplicable curios: a full-sized, gold telephone box; an upright piano clad in a world atlas; a candyfloss machine. Near the entrance there’s an old medical cabinet with Memory Store in red lettering above it; its recesses contain tiny jars stuffed with stories from the lives of those who have been here before me, luggage tags scribbled with snapshots of childhood daytrips, first loves and wedding days. There is also a bar where all the drinks are £1, which is about as magical as it gets.
Behind brocade curtains, the theatre takes up one of the draughty railway arches, 72 dusty tip-up cinema seats on a low rake, each seat with a plaid rug neatly folded on its back. Fairylights and rows of mismatched lampshades hang from the ceiling, and at the front a temporary black sprung floor covers the concrete. I am alone here, and for a few moments I stand on the stage and look out at the empty auditorium. The arches are reminiscent of athe theatre takes up one of the draughty railway arches, 72 dusty tip-up cinema seats on a low rake, each seat with a plaid rug neatly folded on its back bunker. I imagine what this theatre could withstand. Through storms and zombie apocalypses and nuclear disasters this would be a pretty good spot to be. We’d probably have need of theatre, then; like cockroaches, theatre would be one of the last things to survive. I think of the trains passing overhead, of all the people going about their business, completely unaware of the secret wonder beneath them. An underground ballroom hidden beneath the city. Later, looking at the map and tracing the line by which I entered Leeds with my finger, rushing up through Stalybridge, Huddersfield and Dewsbury, I realise I had been among their number.
In the event of the end of days, those that find themselves in the HUB will be well catered for. There’s even a dormitory here, a basic but functional room of bunk beds with a sink, microwave and kettle, plus shelves full of books and trunks crammed with blankets. The showers are out in the Hickling Wing. For now, the beds are available to artists free of charge. The company asks few questions and rarely turns people down. Sometimes it’s occupied with theatre-makers invited to perform at other venues across the city who can’t afford anywhere to stay. At other times there are companies-in-residence for a week or so, living, sleeping and cooking together, spending their days developing new work in the theatre space, or plotting their zombie survival strategies.
And occasionally it’s a temporary home for itinerant writers. I pass the afternoon in one of the shipping containers, writing and drinking steaming mugs of tea as rain drums on the steel roof. In the evening, I go to a gig with a friend who happens to be in town, then return late, passing through the lonely industrial estate alone and a little nervous, struggling to unlock the large metal padlock on the gate. Inside, I unroll my sleeping bag on a bottom bunk, flick on the electric heater, switch out the light, and lie in the darkness, listening. The estate is totally silent, not even the distant sound of sirens or the ticking of old piping. I sleep like a log. In the morning, before anyone arrives, I sit out in the courtyard in fresh, damp sunlight and breakfast on stuffed vine leaves and instant coffee amid the shipping containers and flower-filled bathtubs. I am perfectly happy.
It’s Saturday afternoon and the HUB is a flurry of activity. Tonight’s show is sold out, and everyone in the vicinity has been roped in to help prepare, sweeping the yard and getting dinner ready. Lane hands me a freezer bag of 120 Linda McCartney’s sausages. At a picnic table, I set up two gas camping stoves and fry the sausages up in batches to add to his stew. The heat rises off them in curls of steam that condense in the cool air. The HUB was never really intended to exist. Slung Low had grown to such a size that their funders, Arts Council England, insisted they should be working from some kind of office instead of Lane’s kitchen table. The simple solution would have been to hire a floor in one of the new office blocks in town — “but for the same price, we could have all this,” says Lane, with a sweeping gesture towards the five dilapidated railway arches, as he shovels up piles of rotting lino from a corner of the yard and deposits them in the skip.
Beneath the tracks of the Transpennine Express, Slung Low built a theatre, a kitchen, a workshop and the dormitory. For a time, they had a community allotment. Much more than just an office, they had created a site shared by the Holbeck community, and now the HUB plays host to a writers’ group, cooking lessons and a weekly choir, as well as regular performances. This is the basic approach of Slung Low: if you are lucky enough to have something you can share, then share it. The van they purchased for a tour is insured so anyone can borrow and drive it, free of charge. A local emerging theatre company has set up a small office in an unused corner, and on the wall above their desk they’ve pinned a chart marking out their plans for world domination.This is the basic approach of Slung Low: if you are lucky enough to have something you can share, then share it. The van they purchased for a tour is insured so anyone can borrow and drive it, free of charge
Everyone who works with Slung Low earns exactly the same, including Lane — £500 per week, the average wage in this part of the country, he points out. Performances are all pay-what-you-decide, which might very well mean some audience members pay nothing, although many pay far more than they might usually have been charged. A free hot meal is a regular feature of a night out at the HUB. The simple act of inviting a person to be in a shared space, of feeding and entertaining them in an exchange that is not principally economic — of valuing their presence in measures other than commercial — is striking because it is so rare. It is a reminder that, to paraphrase theatre academic Jen Harvie, even though capitalist conditions are widespread, they are not totalising and can be disrupted.
Perhaps it took a company dedicated to making work outside of conventional performance spaces to create this. Slung Low’s own shows have been staged in car parks, warehouses and town squares — but rarely in theatres. Right now, they are in the middle of making a year-long epic called Flood. Part of the celebrations marking Hull Capital of Culture 2017, Flood tells the story of two local fishermen who haul from the depths of the ocean a mysterious woman called Gloriana. It is a play about migration, about what it means to find your way far from home, set against the backdrop of a great storm that is sweeping the world. The live show features a cast of 99, four boats, a 10-metre petrol explosion, marine flares, and will be performed on a floating set in 30,000 cubic metres of water in Hull’s Victoria Dock.
Slung Low was formed in 2000 and grew into a collective of 36 young artists, an umbrella for a bunch of people who wanted to make theatre together. Even then, they were vaultingly ambitious, wishing to stage work on an epic scale which ruled out the conventional small theatres where companies usually start out. “You can’t enter on a Landrover in a studio,” says Lane. So they put their plays on elsewhere. Because the performances happened not in settings designated for the purpose of theatre, but where ordinary people go about their everyday lives, their work was suddenly being seen and enjoyed by people who would never see themselves as theatre-goers. It became as much about who gets to experience their shows as the kind of theatre they were making, an intertwined politics and pragmatism characteristic of Slung Low’s ethos.
It makes sense that this impromptu theatre operates on such a matter-of-fact basis — rough and ready, open to pretty much anyone who wants to use it. It exists, for now, because people seem to find it both useful and delightful. Lane is clear that it will continue to do so only for as long as this is the case; there will come, he tells me, a time when both the company and the venue have served their purpose, at which point, they will close. This gets to the heart of what Slung Low is: an entity that can expand to the largest dream of the people that inhabit it, but never any bigger. It reveals to me a wider problem with institutions, from banks and newspapers to entire economic systems: they go wrong when they outsize people and can no longer be controlled by them, like so many runaway juggernauts. Theatres can be a salve to a world of institutions-gone-rogue, as long as they stay people-sized, the shape of a pocket.
Berger again: ‘The pocket in question is a small pocket of resistance. A pocket is formed when two or more people come together in agreement. The resistance is against the inhumanity of the new world economic order … unexpectedly, our exchanges strengthen each of us in our conviction that what is happening to the world today is wrong, and that what is often said about it is a lie.’
It’s satisfying to think, as I stand cooking sausages in the open air, that I might be making a better world possible.
At 6.30 p.m. the HUB starts to fill up. Guests are getting their names ticked off the list and buying cheap bottles of lager from the bar. It’s cold in here, so Lane stokes up the woodburning stove, chucking in chunks of old set that are no longer required. We sit too close, and my face glows with the heat while the rest of my body stays icy.
The guests settle in, pulling rugs over their laps, laughing and chatting, so the atmosphere in the auditorium is more like a sleepover than a night at the theatre. Tonight’s show is The Best of BE Festival: three short performances representing the best of European contemporary theatre, with young companies from France, Germany and Italy, unknown here but met by a curious, receptive crowd.The guests settle in, pulling rugs over their laps, laughing and chatting, so the atmosphere in the auditorium is more like a sleepover than a night at the theatre
In the interval, we sit together at the long, gingham-covered tables and tuck into bowls of bean, sausage and maple syrup stew, served up by the Slung Low team from a vast pot. I get chatting to the guy sitting opposite me. “I just always come here, whatever’s on — it’s my place,” he says, and then we start trading ghost stories, because there’s nothing that
theatre people love more than ghost stories.
Eating together is a great leveller, I think, as we pass around chunks of crusty white baguette. It is the quintessential human experience, the one thing you can be certain we hold in common. Once you’ve eaten alongside someone, they are no longer a stranger. A meal is a deceptively simple kind of gift, and I suspect that’s why Lane is so exacting in his insistence on all these small acts of munificence — because they express something bigger than the sum of their parts. It’s the sign you nail to the front gate.
After the performance there’s a question and answer session with the performers. The guests are inquisitive and thoughtful, the questions and answers become a real conversation, and it’s hard not to feel that the enthusiasm on both sides is tempered with an air of melancholy, knowing that, among all the other, complicated things that Britain’s exit from the EU may, in future, make gatherings like this harder to organise — and so more important than ever.
Lane and the rest of the Slung Low team are not here. They’re out in the kitchen, doing the washing up.
Late at night, after the show, Lane and I are in his car, driving through the Yorkshire countryside. “The dorm will be good for the book, sure, but come and stay with us afterwards, you’ll be more comfortable,” he had said, when he learnt about my trip — a characteristic act of care towards a person he’d met precisely once before, at a conference in Manchester. And he was right; staying in the back bedroom of the old terraced policeman’s cottage he shares with his wife and his toddler son who likes to dance to Ed Sheeran, full of books and music and the chickens he rescued from a factory farm, is wonderful.
Yesterday, Lane took me to the highest point of the Holme Valley. We gazed out across it, one of those vast, humbling landscapes that reminds you how small we really are. We took his dog for a long walk across fields and through woodland, turning back on ourselves when we encountered a herd of mean-looking alpacas. “You may have won the battle, but I’ll win the war,” Lane told them.
As we walked, we talked about what it means to stand up for what you believe in and in a way it frightened me because I could see how it demands an integrity I’m not sure I’m capable of; to live, so unwaveringly, like this. I could see how my willingness to compromise, rather than being a strength, might actually be the crack where the leak begins.
Now, the Yorkshire countryside streaks past the window, shrouded in darkness. A weird peel of apricot moon balances on the horizon. Somehow we get talking about his dad, who died, suddenly, when Lane was in his early 20s. Around the same time, Lane himself was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the lymphatic system.
At 22 he underwent a stem cell transplant. For three months he was alone in a room, without human contact save two medical staff, wondering if he would survive, knowing, in fact, that it was more likely he would not. The only way he got through it, he says, was to imagine a time when the agonisingly slow seconds and minutes would become the story he would tell in the future, the story he would tell to make sense of how he got through them. The story he is telling me now.
It seems crude to attribute Lane’s sense of what is important to these experiences. I don’t doubt he was righteous and blazing when he was a teenager too. But he says that what was demanded of him to get through the long days alone in that room, more than anything else, was good spirit, and perhaps something of that good spirit was not only knowing that he had to live, but what he had to live for.“Principles only have value when they become difficult to stick to. When people would forgive you for choosing to compromise, but you don’t”
“Principles only have value when they become difficult to stick to. When people would forgive you for choosing to compromise, but you don’t,” he says. Principles are, in and of themselves, the inverse of what the capitalist system we operate within demands of us, because they hold that people are capable of being motivated by commitments greater than their own gratification. Berger said that love is the best guarantee against idealisation. What that means, in practice, is resistance; resistance to compromise, resistance that is costly and painful. It means that the things we love are not only worth fighting for, but perhaps that the fight for that which we love is the only thing that has worth.
In the darkness, I ask Lane what he sees as his guiding principle.
“Don’t be craven,” he replies. It is the shape of a pocket.
 Sir Peter Jonas is the former head of English National Opera who in 2015 wrote an essay entitled ENO must live. The Arts Council should die. It is beyond the scope of my book to unpick the complexities of the relationship between ENO and Arts Council England, but suffice it to say, Alan Lane did not share Jonas’ view. Alfred Hickling is The Guardian’s North of England theatre critic, who, Alan says, “walked out of one of our shows after five minutes, gave his headphones back to the FOH and said, ‘I thought I was coming to see theatre.’ As literally the only northern-based national critic who writes for a daily he has been granted the honour of having our first toilet wing named after him. I sent him a note to come to an opening but no reply.
David Angove says
*Hickling, we all realise, rhymes symmetrically with ‘pickling’, an acid-ridden attribute of everyday life that puckers the face and reminds everyone of a strangely unpleasant experience.