Pioneers

Joan Godfrey, Nell Cotterell and Aggie Harwood in 1985 Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop production of 'Now the day is over'

Joan Godfrey, Nell Cotterell and Aggie Harwood in 1985 Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop production of ‘Now the day is over’

Almost on a regular basis on Tuesdays, for Meet Me at the Albany, the piano in the café gets wheeled out into the centre of the room and the music begins. It’s an old, slightly out of tune instrument, perhaps one of the survivors of the1960’s piano smashing competitions.

The older Bermondsey women that I apprenticed myself to the early 1980’s knew about pianos. In the 1930’s their week long parties would be kindled around the upright in the front room until the energy couldn’t be contained any longer and the men would be commanded to drag the piano out onto the streets. Beer and the piano: “rows and rows of little houses and all the windows open wide and the lights flaring out; people moving in and out of each others houses”.

By the time I’d got to know them they were in their eighties. They’d drag me onto their summer coach trips down to the south coast, still young and wild despite what their bodies were telling them. They’d scour the pubs for a piano and then heaven help any one else who had popped in for a quiet drink. They’d get bar staff to sing and drag cooks from the kitchen to recite Shakespeare. They were the curators of wild and wonderful mash-ups.

They bought all of this raw energy to their theatre making, the generation who had survived two world wars and everything else the twentieth century had tried to beat them up with. In the new landscape of ‘Arts and Older People’ I guess they were one of the pioneering companies.

The other day I came across a scribbled diary note catching a fragment of my time with them:-

Inside the blue minibus the older women are taken to the centre of the city. They have been invited by the television company to share the preview of the documentary film that has been made about their work. It is one moment in a crowded week. The production is going on tour to sheltered housing schemes and another school has booked them for a workshop. Nell Coombes, at 92 the oldest member of the group, looks out of the bus window:

“Look at them, looking at us, thinking: “Poor old dears off to their day centre”, she says.

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