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The Unlimited Festival: an overall impression / 16 September 2014

still from a film by Jo Verrent and Luke Pell showing an overview of two disabled people in their underwear lying on beds in two separate screens

Still from Dance Film installation by Jo Verrent and Luke Pell: 'Take Me To Bed'

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By Gary Thomas

I should begin with a note that I didn’t go to everything, but when I did attend the Southbank Centre was buzzing, and so was I.

The first thing I noticed when I walked in on the Tuesday, the opening day, was Jo Verrent & Luke Pell’s striking ‘Take Me To Bed’, on the large screen at the back of The Clore Ballroom. It’s a choreography of sleep, with familiar faces from the disability art world on a bed, sleeping in various positions. The screen is life size, and personally I would have liked to see the beds closer together, but it worked well in the space.

The first event was the screening of a series of films commissioned by Channel 4 and the commissions from Channel 4 and 14-18 NOW. I loved Katherine Araniello’s, ‘Oh! What A Lovely, Lovely Ward’ for its dark humour - and just the mess of it all. A great spoof.

Then it was on to the very same Katherine Araniello live show, The Dinner Party, Revisited. The first thing that struck me was that the performance is a homage to ‘Dinner For One’, which was filmed in 1963 and has become the most repeated programme in television history. 

Katherine’s show however, was unique, and made fun of her, the sign language interpreters, the butlers, and all aspects of having friends over for dinner. Each character on the 6 screens set up behind a large dining table was played by Katherine. This unscripted piece of Live Art touched satirically on themes of ‘assisted suicide’ and ‘the infliction’.

Let Me Stay, Vital Xposure’s new work, performed giftedly by Julie McNamara, has stayed with me for a while. This one woman play about dementia felt more like a play about family, and how one supports family members, whether they’re ‘going quietly’ or not.  

The fact that Shirley, (Julie’s real life mother) was never one to 'go quietly, anywhere' is where a lot of the humour - and affection - comes from. Julie shifts effortlessly between ‘Julie’ and ‘Shirley’. There is great comedy in the interaction with the signer. The show also features a filmed backdrop shown as accompaniment to song. Watching Julie sing with her mother on screen, felt like sharing intimate moments we were privileged to watch.

Overall the festival on the Saturday was buzzing with excitement. There were a lot of people there, but some of the time everything felt a little cramped, even in a venue like the Southbank Centre. At one point I came out of the toilets to find I wasn’t sure how to get back to the bar area as so much equipment was in the way.

I assume Unlimited had little control over what was programmed in the venue and how it was presented. It did make me wonder how people with other access needs were able to get around?

There was a lot to take in. The programme was a little confusing. I didn’t realise certain shows were on. For example I hadn’t realised that Dao were running a poetry reading or the context for the public talks on the R&D commissions.

I was worried when I got there on Tuesday night that the festival would be playing to people we know. That certainly wasn’t the case as by the Saturday it was heaving with a mix of people. Certainly the film and artworks on display in the Royal Festival Hall - including Jo Bannon’s photographs - were constantly busy with avid audiences. 

On the Spirit Level, Lea Cummings work shone brightly in the space. Unfortunately you had to go through ‘The Tunnel of Love’ to get there, which was a trifle confusing.

I also heard positive things about The Vacuum Cleaner artist talk, something which I tried to get tickets for but was sold out.

But overall, it was a great experience as audience, I only wish I had the capacity to see more.

A plea for the next Unlimited Festival. Can we have wider industry delegate passes please!

Keywords: access,assisted suicide,humour,performing arts,unlimited,visual arts