Street theatre show highlights modern loneliness epidemic

A pop-up street theatre performance this week will focus on the epidemic of loneliness and the growing isolation of older people.

The Loneliness Street Cabaret, an outdoor street performance from the Beautiful Mess Theatre Company, is showing from Tuesday to Thursday (4 to 7 October) as part of the month-long Age UK Lambeth’s Celebrating Age Festival in London.

The theatre performance, which takes place in different public spaces across the south London borough, is inspired by the fact that loneliness is increasing at a time when our our cities are becoming ever more crowded. The show has been developed using anecdotes, opinions and experiences of older people in south London.

According to research highlighted by the Campaign to End Loneliness, more than half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone, while two-fifths all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company.

Beautiful Mess creative producer Chloe Osborne says the theatre company was inspired to create the project following a Guardian article about loneliness. Osborne adds: “There was a particular article which initially inspired artistic director Kati Francis to create the work. The article raised the question of how it’s possible to have this rise in loneliness amid an ever-increasing population. In particular we wanted to explore why people can’t – or don’t – connect anymore.”

Between May and August this year, the Loneliness Street Cabaret was performed more than 200 times in south London, Liverpool, Devon and Italy. The two-person performance involves an eclectic mix of puppetry, live music and physical comedy, with audience interaction, “in the best tradition of street theatre”, says Osborne. Audience members are invited to help – or hinder – one of the characters, a businessman who is too busy on his mobile phone to engage with others, including another character, a woman who makes him think twice about his actions.

The Loneliness Street Cabaret, funded by Arts Council England and supported by the Big Lottery Fund and Wandsworth, Greenwich and Lambeth councils, specialises in touring its outdoor work to arts festivals and “overlooked municipal areas”. Its mission is to “make theatre that champions the voices of the unheard” and promote positive social change. Productions are developed in collaboration with the community and have a social issue at their heart. Founder and artistic director Kati Francis says the approach “enables multiple and diverse voices to inform our professional work”.

Development of the performance involved collaborating with older people in Lambeth, community workers and care professionals through Age UK Lambeth. Development took around six months. Osborne explains: “Research began with some informal visits with older people at a community centre and a local care home, spending time with people and having conversations. This developed this into small group workshops with thoughts about archetypal people who might be isolated; how they behave … the characters developed from that.”

Older people, says Osborne, also raised fears about the rise of loneliness among the younger generation, a concern highlighted in research from the Mental Health Foundation. Osborne says: “What came from the older generation was that they felt most sorry for the generation growing up now, because people were choosing to isolate themselves – through technology.”

The shows are performed in public spaces, from outside tube stations to public squares, in the hope that the shared experience of performance will spark the audience to have conversations and take action based on the show’s themes. Osborne says the aim is to provoke people to consider the issues highlighted by the performance: “It’s about your local community and how you fit within it, but also about what your responsibility is for ensuring that others belong in it too.”

The fact that the action always takes place in public spaces, says Osborne, means it might attract people who do not usually go to the theatre or participate in the arts. She adds: “It’s performance provocation in overlooked public spaces. It is about really prompting people to explore their own feelings and emotional responses and think about their community.” At a time when many public areas are being privatised, and public green spaces are on the wane, the theatre group is keen to champion and use the public shared environment.

Kim Connell, Age UK Lambeth services manager, adds: “As people get older, they don’t choose to be isolated but their circumstances change with age. Their circle of friends gets smaller and many would rather not turn up at an event without a friend, so people just don’t go out.”

Connell says volunteer befriending schemes, such as those run by various Age UK branches and other community groups, are one way to prevent social isolation. She would like this week’s performances to throw some much-needed attention on a modern epidemic. Connell adds: “I hope people leave with an awareness that isolation is an issue and that they think differently about other people in their community; they might have a neighbour that no one ever speaks to.”