The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell

Arts are at the heart of Camberwell


Jade van Zuydam discusses this years festival, Marie Staunton interviews director Peter Benedict and listens to veteran theatre-goer Joseph May, and 21 year old David Alade tells of his experience of writing a play

The twenty-eighth annual Camberwell Arts Festival kicked off on Camberwell Green on Saturday, 10 June 2023, with a week of celebrating the work of local artists and entertainers.

It’s Showtime was this year’s theme. It paid tribute to Camberwell’s long tradition of arts and entertainment. Since the Middle Ages a fair has been held on the Green to commemorate the feast of Camberwell’s patron, St Giles. In the nineteenth century came the music halls. Before the dawn of modern cinema, Londoners seeking to unwind and be entertained, would gather in taverns and supper rooms, to eat, drink and watch performers sing. By the mid-20th century, Camberwell was the focal point of the South London music hall scene. Fred Karno, the slapstick comedian credited with popularising the custard-pie-in-the-face gag, was a local.

Camberwell was once the rehearsing stomping ground of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. It is childhood home to the finest actor of his generation, Sir Michael Caine. Camberwell had eight music halls and five cinemas in 1939, all a short walk away from the Green. Nothing of this remains today, but we can boast of four theatres: The Blue Elephant, Golden Goose Theatre, Theatre Peckham and Longfield Hall. This summer’s Art Festival offers a chance to enjoy the human connectivity of by-gone eras and those golden days of live performances and bustling playhouses.

As usual, there was the hugely enjoyable Open Studio Weekend: the opportunity to meet local artists. They showed an extraordinary range of work to suit every budget, from paintings and prints to jewellery, clothing and ceramics. It was a chance to meet artists in their own homes or visit them in their studios, such as Coldharbour, Clockwork and Vanguard Court. Open Studios run on the weekend of 17 - 18 June, from midday to 5pm.

The festival also featured a music tent. The Dog Show, which aims to find the neighbourhood’s best-looking, well-trained pups, was back by popular demand to indulge in a Marie Antoinette-themed afternoon tea to eat your cake and (if the gods are willing) soak up the sun.

Joseph May looks back with pleasure

It was seeing Goldilocks and the Three Bears at Camberwell Place of Varieties in 1952, aged nine, that kindled my lifelong love of musical theatre. I am an active member of the British Music Hall Society. Last month we had an evening of Noel Coward and in June we make our annual trip to music hall performances at the Hippodrome, Eastbourne.

I grew up in Myatt Road. My father was a foreman at the Barclay and Perkins brewery; mum was a hospital orderly. Our family were ordinary working-class folk, but rich in music and humour. My parents frequented music halls in the 1920s and loved dancing at the Surrey Theatre Music Hall on Blackfriars Road. My dad taught me to step dance. We had a piano. Mum paid for it weekly and played it lovely.

Camberwell was the place for entertainment. By the time I was 18, the Palace had turned to girlie shows and closed down. But there were four cinemas, dream palaces we could escape to. On a Saturday I would get back from my job as a butcher’s boy in Clapham, change into clean slacks, shirt jacket and tie and stroll into Camberwell to meet friends, perhaps stopping at the independent record shop at the corner of Camberwell Church Street and Camberwell Green. Then to Wilson’s the bakers on the corner of Daneville Road and Denmark Hill to buy broken biscuits, then across the road to the Odeon.

This was a luxury cinema for the masses. We queued for an hour to see Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra, then bought a Kia Ora orange drink, a ticket for two shillings and headed to the stalls. When we could afford two shillings and six pence it was up one of the two staircases to the circle. At the end of a film, we would be play-acting, dancing or swashbuckling all down the street. We would often pass front rooms full of people dancing and having a singsong around the piano and join in the singing as we walked past.

It is good to see theatres coming back to Camberwell. Recently, I looked round the Lighthouse church in Walworth Road, the former ABC Cinema, with the Cinema and Theatre Association and remembered our dream palaces.

Peter Benedict on a directors skills

“Actors are like dogs. They smell fear. And then they will go for you as director,” says Peter Benedict, an actor himself. He is also a director, playwright and long-time resident of Denman Road. Over the past 40 years, the plays he has directed include The Rivals at Holland Park and Guards! Guards! a play based on the Terry Pratchett novel.

Benedict’s revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore at Wilton’s Music Hall this spring won rave reviews. “The Director of this is touched with genius,” wrote Gyles Brandreth. Right up to the first performance, Peter was sure the production would be a ‘disaster’ and his own performance ‘embarrassingly bad’. Older actors were uneasy about the experimental production; young actors were debuting in their first professional roles; the videographer had failed to produce crucial special effects; Peter had been too busy dealing with technical hitches to concentrate on his character. He had not sung in a musical for 35 years.

But directing, like acting, is all about confidence. The director has to act like a cat, he says, unworried and unconcerned. By appearing confident, he gives confidence to the actors.

“This is where technique kicks in. Say, ‘Right. I am going on now and I’m brilliant,’ even though till that moment you were convinced that you are dreadful.” He explains that if you do not ensure actors are confident, everything evaporates. “If something goes slightly wrong on stage, you drop a line perhaps, the audience will not know. But you will find that in the places where you normally get laughs for the next two minutes, you don’t get the laughs. You are slightly unnerved, so you no longer own the stage and belief in the character.”

Directors are diplomats, he says. They need to mollycoddle some actors and kick others for being lazy. But never undermine their confidence. Actors are often unaware of the director’s work in stage management, funding and technicalities. For them, things turn up by magic at the dress rehearsal. But actors are the most important. “They are what the audience come to see. Apart from Trevor Nunn and Sam Mendes, most audiences would be hard pressed to name a theatre director.”

After three weeks intense rehearsal and two weeks of performances the debutant actors had bonded for life and went clubbing. Director Peter organised the ‘get out’ - making way for the next show - and went home to stroke his cat.

David Alade makes his debut

Sunny Side Up is a raw, funny one-man stage play telling my story through the character Lil D. We follow Lil D’s journey through life: primary school, his first crush, secondary school, the rites of passage, later stages of education, the death of his father, Sunny.

When I started writing the play, I intended it to be a tribute to my father. As I wrote, it became a play about me, and my relationship to my father. I began to learn about him: his idea of what it is to be a Nigerian father, the way he brought up me and my siblings. It was quite therapeutic. I understood myself better as a result.

After many drafts, I contacted Suzann McLean, the artistic director and the CEO of Theatre Peckham. I also heard from a producer who gave me some feedback. I continued to work on the play. I was then approached by another producer who set me a deadline, as he wanted to read it. Following this, I was encouraged to submit it for the Theatre Peckham Fringe Festival 2022. It was accepted. Suzann was interested in my work. She understood the grief of losing a parent. We had a meeting. She decided to direct my play.

Four performances were sold out before we even began. I owe this to my community who turn up to everything I do. This first version of Sunny Side Up received a four- star review. People loved it. Theatre Peckham decided to commission it for a full run. It brought in its gifted team to turn this fringe play into a full theatrical production. Carina Torres was the stage manager, Rasaq Kukoyi and Tony Gayle the sound designers, Natalie Pryce the costume and set designer, Sean Wang the movement director, and Tim Speechley the lighting designer.

The full run in February and March was amazing, I wrote more, so we could give people an extended version of Sunny Side Up. It received even more praise. Notable figures such as Jo Martin (Dr. Who) and playwright Roy Williams were in attendance. The play was awarded five-star reviews and three Offie nominations. I hope this is just the beginning.

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The Camberwell Society was formed in 1970 and is the recognised amenity society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell.

The Society’s objectives, as defined by our constitution, are: to stimulate public interest in Camberwell, to promote high standards of planning and architecture in Camberwell, and to secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of historic or public interest in Camberwell.

We are a charity and raise money for local charities. In the past we have raised money for Southside Rehabilitation Association, St Giles Trust, Cambridge House, the CamberwellCommunity Choir, the HollingtonYouth Centre and the Camberwell Arts Festival