Theatre gets edgy in Stoke Newington: Second Skin stage 'La Chunga' in N16

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By Sophie_RT | Friday, September 16, 2011, 11:16

Last week in Stoke Newington it was cold, it was grey, and it was wet. But last week in Stoke Newington I was whisked away to a spit and sawdust tavern in Peru – via a spit and sawdust pub in N16 – thanks to Stokey's newest settler, The Church Street Theatre.

Beneath Ryan's Bar this week, theatre company Second Skin launched a dinky little fringe affair specialising in the edgy, esoteric and, from what I witnessed on Wednesday, the downright erotic. The lovechild of artistic director Andy McQuade and director Sam Julyan, with plenty of help from American playwright Don Fried, the theatre company will stage six plays each year with a focus on alternative, controversial, "difficult", unpublished, new and/or local plays. This is not your mainstream fayre, and I won't be recommending it on a rundown of good places to take your mother any time soon.

Andy, who looks like a cross between Nick Cave and John Travolta – with all the cool to match – is a member of The Young Vic's Directors' Programme and The Directors' Guild of Great Britain. Coming from a Council estate in Tottenham, he explains that he was "saved from a life of sin by choral work" as a youngster and, after a lapse into waywardness as a youth, was rescued by the careful mentoring of a wild-eyed Russian director who trained him in Eastern European theatre and discipline. Andy's journey so far has led him to perform in over 50 stage productions as well as handfuls of feature films and eventually to open his own theatre company with Sam.

Second Skin is not a new venture in itself and has been moving from place to place since 2007, but Andy explained the appeal of N16 as their new home: "Stokey has such a big history of writers – Church Street is just such a funky, vibrant place and we hope a good one to develop an audience base".

When I asked him what he thought of the theatre scene in Hackney already I got the most passionate response of the evening, "Mehmet (Artistic Director of The Arcola) is one of my inspirations. As a theatre practitioner the way he's done what he's done is amazing. And there's so much good stuff going on around here. We want to work with other theatres in Hackney and build up even more of a scene."

Second Skin will also be running theatre groups and workshops for young people in Tottenham, "That's a really important part of this," explains Andy – "I'm in a position now where I feel I can try and pass some of this stuff on: I've gone full circle in a way, and want to try and reach people who otherwise wouldn't get involved in theatre". And Tottenham seems a particularly appropriate place to give back to, given the bad press the area's youth has received following the recent London Riots.

So, from Tottenham back to that bar in Peru (I wish). Mario Vargas Llosa's "La Chunga" is the theatre's first production, and the UK premiere of Nobel Laureate's 1986 work. It is an exploration of the links and limits between gender, sexuality, truth, lies and imagination. La Chunga is the fierce, tight fisted landlady of Peru's seediest bar, regular watering hole to a gang of vice-driven "Super Studs". One day, after a bad run at the dice, leader of the gang Josefino agrees to rent his stunning new girlfriend to La Chunga for the night, to fund his next roll. This is the moment at which fantasy and reality first lock horns as the men let their imaginations run wild considering what happens between the two women, and the scenes that unfold tell their darkest secrets.

There is some fantastic acting in this performance – La Chunga (Victoria Grove) is captivating as the predatory yet gentle woman; and Mono (Marco Aponte), the man with the most amazing and expressive eyebrows this side of Sesame Street, made an utterly flawless transition between lovable clown and tortured repentant.

The set is small, but works effectively to capture the dinginess of La Chunga's bar. The seating needs a little jiggling, although I may have just been sitting behind someone with water on their brain, but there was a tad too much ducking and diving required in order to see everything that was going on on-stage at times. Second Skin are moving venue after this run though, so hopefully this is a very short lived issue, and it's certainly one that can be forgiven, given how good the rest of the experience was.

And it really was a satisfying experience. Church Street Theatre is, in fact, what the Stokey scene has been aching for for quite a while: a dark side. Andy's right, Roar Theatre above The Lion, the gorgeous Hackney Empire and the Arcola have helped create some great theatre in N16 already; but Second Skin look set to bring something new to the floor, and to be the grit that balances out Stokey's  vintage crockery and late night knitting clubs.



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