A Rye Gem  

Susan Elkin met with Theatre Peckham AD Suzann Mclean, discovering this hub has much to offer

Founded 33 years ago, Theatre Peckham is an unsung jewel tucked away in the back streets of Southwark about ten minutes walk from Peckham Rye station and close to the centre of Camberwell. Mountview Academy, one of the country’s top drama schools is now just along the road. University of the Arts London, Camberwell, is round the corner. This is definitely a cultural hub. Even so I’m very pleasantly surprised when I walk along Havil Street to find a large purpose-built modern building which includes (as I discover later) a fine 200 seat theatre as well as lots of meeting and teaching space and a nice café.

TP’s purpose and mission is to offer dance and drama for young people, including courses and performances within a community project and theatre. It teaches acting, singing and dancing to people aged 3-25 and works with over 400 participants every week. Its patrons – immaculately diverse and representative – are Ian McKellan, Jenny Agutter and David Harewood. 

Suzann Mclean took over as artistic director just over a year ago. “I trained at Italia Conti as an actor” she says, “But drama school is not a viable option for many of TP’s young people even if that’s what they want, so we try to offer an alternative”. Suzann still works as an actor when she can, which she says gives her credibility with the young people her organisation works with. “If they’ve seen me, for instance, many times on the BUPA ad in their own homes they feel they already know me. It also shows them that actors are normal people! And it all adds to engagement.”

Theatre Peckham’s new play Extremism (by Anders Lustgarten), which Suzann directs, was written in 2017 for National Theatre Connections. “It explores the issues surrounding radicalisation in schools and the unforeseen consequences of the Government’s Prevent programme” she says, explaining that the play, set in a classroom, opens just after a teacher has taken a student out of the room because radicalisation is suspected. “Prevent has proved so problematic that it’s now being reviewed” she tells me.

Suzann hopes that young people will recognise that the different “types” in the play’s classroom are likely to be in the audience’s own experience. There’s a message too that words – once said for whatever reason – cannot be retracted. 

The play was openly cast using 17-22 year olds. “There’s a three week rehearsal period before the three week run and thanks to support from Cockayne – Grants for the Arts, we’re able to give them each a bursary so it’s a really good training opportunity,” says Suzann, telling me with pride that the assistant director on Extremism is only 19. “It’s the first time I’ve done this here, but I’ve done it elsewhere and I’m confident that casting directors will come and see it and look at the work of these performers with interest. One of the great things about this play is that you have to use a large cast of young actors.”

After TP’s staging of Robin Hood last Christmas, several of the cast got roles in the National Theatre’s Small Island. “The industry wants strong individuals and there is professional work for them” says Suzann. “The trouble with drama school is that, after three years, their graduates sometimes seem a bit homogenised.”

Under Suzann’s leadership Theatre Peckham is also trying to widen its remit. “For the first time we now have a Backstage Academy” she says. “Performing is not the be all and end all of theatre. There are many different backstage jobs with really good career potential. We now have a group of about 15 young people who are training in backstage skills and some of them are working on Extremism”.

Theatre Peckham ran a writing competition this summer too. “We invited the submission of short scripts the best of which were given a rehearsed reading by professional actors who appreciated the authenticity of the dialogue. “They said it was really easy” recalls Suzann because these young writers had captured exactly how young people speak, which is very different from the way older playwrights might think they do.”

After Extremism, due to be seen by lots of school parties thereby adding to local awareness of TP’s existence and work, comes the company’s Christmas show, Jack and the Beanstalk which isn’t, apparently, quite a pantomime and has lots of local twists. In the gaps, TP also acts as a receiving house for visiting companies so there’s quite a variety of shows on offer. 

Extremism runs until 23 November

Theatre Peckham’s Christmas show, Jack and the Beanstalk runs
from 4-22 December Theatre Peckham,
221 Havil Street, London SE5 7SD
020 7708 5401 

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