Landscape architecture, garden design, planting design and management - Rowland Byass



Recently I went to a play staged in a park. It was written by my friend Helena Thompson, and put on by her theatre company, S.P.I.D Productions, who specialise in 'adventerous immersive theatre.'  Not the kind of play usually associated with outdoor performance in my mind – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and various other forms of familiar tweeness. This one was staged all over a park, and the park wasn’t standing in for the mythical kingdom of Bohemia or whatever. The park is a park.

With the aid of MP3 players worn by the audience, the cast of Childsplay lead the audience around Normand Park in West London. We are given a survey of, and commentary on, the games children have played through the mid-twentieth to early twenty-first centuries – from Knock Down Ginger, through to the more sedentary digital diversions of today’s youth.

What immediately struck me was the way in which actors draw the landscape of the park into the play, articulating its features in doing so. A set of small hillocks in the park becomes the setting for Cowboys and Indians. The hillocks are used as cover by the Cowboys attacking the Indians; an unfortunate female Indian gets tied to a tree with skipping rope. Concrete benches are used as the backdrop for games of marbles.

Before going to Childsplay I’d had no idea of the existence of Normand Park. It’s not huge, tucked away in an unremarkable part of Fulham. But it’s a fantastic, really thoughtfully designed park. Hard landscape, landform and paving have been designed to enable play, not dictate it. Seeing the ways in which the actors made use of the landscape of the park made evident the depth of thought that has gone into its design.

There is an open-endedess about the park’s design that lends itself to the ways in which children actually use spaces for play.  In fact there isn’t really much ‘play equipment’ as such, or at least as you imagine it (fenced off slides, swings and sad-looking things on springs). The topography of the park itself has been altered and exploited for its play opportunities, and this made some of the best settings for the play's action.

The other thing about holding a play on a Saturday afternoon in a public park was the serendipity that emerges when you take five actors running around a park and ‘playing’, and combine it with hordes of small children and dogs, who need no explanation of what’s going on. More than once an excitable dog bounded into the scene, adding to it in a way no theatre-based production could. Like the smaller children in the park who crowded round the action, they knew instinctively what was going on.  As Jan Gehl suggests in the classic Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space (1987), ‘human activities’ – being able to see other people doing things, talking, playing, even just sitting – are really the main attraction of public spaces.

It’s not surprising that KLA, the landscape architects who designed Normand Park, won several awards for it. Meaningful consultation with the users of the park during its design gives it a richness and complexity that not many parks have. It’s clearly extremely popular with local children and families. And Childsplay seemed perfectly suited to the place (although it’s been on tour in parks all over the country, not all as well designed and used as this one).

Community theatre staged in a park sounds on the face of it pretty dreary. But this was anything but: disarmingly simple, joyful; somehow both tightly choreographed and highly spontaneous.

Just like the park really.

The cast of Childsplay: Nicholas Ako, Elijah Baker, Sydnee Howard, Greg Sheffield, Glyn Williams




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