“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” So, apparently, said George Bernard Shaw, the playwright and critic who spent a whole lifetime playing: writing plays and working with players to stage them. His drama Candida – lesser-known than his major hits, Pygmalion, Man and Superman or Saint Joan – is set within striking distance of Arcola Theatre in Hackney, East London. It’s fair to say that Shaw was not the biggest fan of the area. In the first scene of Candida, he describes it as a ‘desert of unattractiveness’, filled with ‘poorly dressed people’ who show ‘little energy and eagerness’.
It’s hard to recognise that description in the rehearsal room for Beautiful: Not the Carol King Musical. Here, Arcola’s 50+ group – comprised of over-50s from the local community – is putting the finishing touches to their brand new production: a tongue-in-cheek response to the modern jukebox musical. It’s based on an original idea by performance artist Paul O’Donnell, and loosely on the music of Jon Bon Jovi, but for the company, the show is distinctly their own. It’s driven by their thinking and interests; in this case, whether the art of imagination is being lost to machinery, illusion and extravagance. One can’t help but think that George Bernard Shaw would admire their satirical ambitions, if not their glittery (and frequently plastic) outfits.
“These are, in one sense, ordinary members of Hackney’s local community,” says the group director, Nick Connaughton. “But they are also extraordinary individuals, channelling their interests, experiences and creative talents to create an original piece of theatre. The Arcola 50+ group exists partly to prove that people can be both of those things at once, and achieve those results, if only they’re given the space and the impetus to play.”
Now eight years old, the group is a mature fixture at the Arcola, but it shows no signs of slowing down. Company members meet weekly and work towards a full production for a paying audience once a year, as part of Arcola’s ‘Creative Disruption’ festival. They reap the benefits which engagement with the arts can bring, but the benefits are also felt more widely in the community.
“This isn’t just about creating opportunities for the performers, but for the public – for people of all generations – to hear their voices and relish their stories,” says the Arcola’s Artistic Director, Mehmet Ergen. “Audiences want perspectives that are less familiar, and more surprising. In resisting the underrepresentation and the pigeon-holding of older performers, the 50+ group enlivens our programme and the wider discussion.”
Perhaps that’s why the 50+ group has been increasingly in demand for projects further afield. Recently they were invited by the Tate Modern gallery to create a new interactive response to their ‘Women in Work’ exhibition, investigating the domestic role of women in the 1970s. In 2015, they were given a slot at the Glastonbury Festival.
“Nothing has to be exclusively the preserve of the young, and stigmas affecting older people can and should be challenged” explains Nick Connaughton. “Musicals are often staged without older performers, but they don’t have to be. Not least because – as the Arcola 50+ group shows – people can stay young. They can keep improvising, keep imagining, keep bringing characters to life. They just need to keep playing.”
Following a sold-out run in January, Arcola 50+’s production of Beautiful: Not The Carole King Musical will be returning for a special one-off performance on Sunday 30th April 2017.