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Andrzej Lukowski: Amdram brings new work to an appreciative wider audience

Beckenham Theatre
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As far as I’m aware, I managed to make it to the age of 35 without ever having seen a performance by an amateur theatre company… until recently, when I finally popped my cherry with a trip to Beckenham Theatre.

For essentially patronising reasons, I’d been mildly obsessed with Beckenham since I moved to the same road as the old house it’s based in. I thought its ramshackle billboard – on which the name of the current production is dwarfed by the name of the sponsor, a local sign maker – was endearing. And I’ve long been intrigued by the programme, which swings from Pinter to panto with joyous randomness.

I had no real intention of going, mostly because I see quite a lot of theatre already. But then a revival of Lucy Prebble’s brilliant 2012 play The Effect was programmed. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s why people go to see amdram theatre.’

While it’s possible to see an almost infinite number of productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a given year, that’s not how the licensing works with new writing. Rupert Goold’s production of The Effect, which starred Billie Piper, ran in rep for three and a half months in the National Theatre’s tiny Cottesloe (now Dorfman). It sold out instantly, and never transferred. The solitary British revival to date ran at the Sheffield Crucible for a month last summer. I was lucky enough to see it at the NT, but many weren’t. Even so, I’d assumed that I wouldn’t see one of my favourite plays of recent times anytime soon, perhaps ever.

So, yay for Beckenham Theatre and for all the amdram companies who tackle the great new work that regular folk wouldn’t get to see otherwise.

Some years ago, I gave Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem five stars. I was not a lone voice, and in the greater scheme of things I doubt my review had any impact beyond netting me a ticket. Much more effective in spreading the play’s gospel, surely, are the numerous amdram companies that have fearlessly tackled it. Jerusalem, which never toured and was almost impossible to get tickets to, has been revived up and down the country, including a recent version by the Guildford Pranksters in May.

This month, Londoners can catch Moira Buffini’s Handbagged (Tower Theatre Company), the Fringe First-winning Scarborough by Fiona Evans (South London Theatre) and Caryl Churchill’s A Number (Woodhouse Players). Earlier this summer, the Sedos company did the unthinkable and took on Alecky Blythe’s avant-garde verbatim musical London Road.

The English thing to do would be to say Beckenham Theatre’s production of The Effect was just as good as Rupert Goold’s. As a cold-hearted Slav, I can confirm it definitely wasn’t. But it was solid, and I enjoyed it. And sometimes the point of seeing a play is just to see the play, not the greatest production ever.

Theatre is a live medium: The Effect shouldn’t live on through press clippings, but through performance. At its bravest, amdram keeps our theatre culture alive.

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