366 Days of Kindness, North Wall Arts Centre
‘True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar’. At the sound of Martin Luther King’s famous words a discernible silence gripped the North Wall Arts Centre in Summertown. Until then the 366 Days of Kindness had been a light, witty, unintellectualised portrayal of one woman’s journey through the streets of London in the aftermath of the 2011 riots. Deptford gal Bernadette Russell had decided to offer one unsolicited act of kindness to a stranger every day for a year. In a mixture of live theatre, video and audio, we saw her give flowers to a pharmacist, a croissant to a dog, a packet of Rolos to a homeless bloke, heart-shaped balloons to commuters on Valentine’s Day, and a bus fare to a boy with a broken arm.
We saw her serve high tea in a phone box (complete with bunting) and send thousands of homemade cards to the sick, lonely, or depressed. In fact there was a whole video montage devoted to the cards and care boxes she sent, which were projected onto a big screen and accompanied by ‘impromptu’ dancing by Bernadette’s sidekick, Gareth Brierley. Watching this fairly unremarkable white man, probably in his mid-thirties, progress from understated office party shuffle to all-out wannabe gangsta mash up was excruciating and induced a strained laughter from the audience.
We also saw Bernadette encounter doubters. There were those who thought what she was doing was too expensive, too middle class, too insignificant to actually make a difference to people’s lives. Gareth (in a brilliant, if unintended, impression of Orlando from Gap Yah) told her that ‘there are wankers everywhere’, yah, ‘so why bother’? But, with the help of some fabulous interview footage, Bernadette showed how inspiring and infectious a kind gesture can be. A particular highlight was the young chap who used Twitter to mobilise thousands of people in London to help clean up local shops affected by the rioting.
Yet on the central issue, whether kindness can change the world, 366 Days of Kindness left us with questions unanswered. The multimedia dimension added some necessary emotional depth, but at times it felt as if the performers were hiding behind the pre-recorded voices and failing to move me with their own stories. Though the after-show Q&A session offered a chance to reflect and share ideas, I still came away with a nagging sense that kindness is not enough.
Go and see this production, make the seemingly insurmountable trek up to South Parade, if you want to be warmed by the sweet simplicity of a world full of cupcakes and kindness. But do be prepared to come away thinking about the deeper, troubling issues facing burnout Britain.
PHOTO/Brynn (Wikimedia Commons)