There’s a kind of alchemy at work in ‘Letters to Windsor House’ (hearafter, ‘Letters‘) It is part-detective-drama, part-political-documentary, part-comedy, part-musical, part-love-story. Each of these elements engages. Mixed together, however, some kind of magic happens.
Sh!t Theatre’s Becca and Louise perform against a visual backdrop of videos and photographs, telling their stories with anecdotes, musical interludes, dance routines and much comedic clowning. It is all done with an energy that is utterly contagious. It all looks like ‘rollicking good fun’; they seem to be having a blast and so we are too. But it is so, so much more than that. Their tangible personal connection with both the content of the piece and with the audience feels utterly authentic and it’s hard not to be drawn into their world and to feel their experiences from ‘the inside’.
When we walk in, Becca and Louise are already on stage, wearing their trademark face-paint and sitting companionably on a sofa. They are surrounded by cardboard boxes, singing happily along to Heart’s ‘Alone’. Over the next hour we learn about their experience sharing a grubby flat with very little money and some dodgy landlords. Their coping mechanisms are various but include opening the letters that have arrived addressed to previous residents and using these fragments to create stories about said residents’ lives and problems. These imagined narratives are consciously convoluted and fantastical – and prove to be ill-conceived. But it is the process, not the outcome, that is the point here. They become so invested in the stories that they go to extraordinary and highly amusing lengths to track down the ex-residents.
The political context for all this is a national housing crisis which, in 2016, enabled 200,000 homes in England to sit empty despite a desperate shortage of financially-accessible rental accommodation and an increasing homelessness problem. ‘Letters‘ addresses this through the very particular lens of Becca and Louise’s personal experience living in the eponymous council block, Windsor House (London N4). Its neighbouring blocks are Buckingham, Balmoral and Holyrood. Wouldn’t you have just loved to be a fly on the wall of the council meeting in which this nomenclature was discussed? Video footage juxtaposes images of their small, dilapidated flat (with its pigeon-shit-encrusted balcony and decrepit local environs) with promotional videos for a gentrification development, involving million pound private apartments (with concierge facilities, a spa and delightful views over a reservoir).
The brutal contradictions of this housing crisis are left mostly to speak for themselves. Like a lot in this piece, the political critique is under-stated – an indictment that is subtle rather than searing – but no less devastating for that. (‘Iron fist in velvet glove’ comes to mind.)
That said, and for all the drama and the politics, the comedy and the music, ‘Letters’ is, at its heart, a love story. A love story not about romance but friendship.
The depth of Becca and Louise’s relationship is implicit in every aspect of their performance – from that very first moment , sitting on that sofa, singing that song. But it is also poignantly documented in letters (yes, more letters) between the pair, read out from inside post-box costumes. These letters – unlike the enigmatic letters of previous residents – are painfully explicit about the difficulties of living and working and loving in such an intimate space and in such challenging circumstances. They reveal the struggle to navigate the co-dependencies of friendship as their lives and hopes shift and change. These exchanges are heart-breaking and their simple truthfulness makes for an uncomfortable watch – it feels almost voyueristic. It is notable that this is the only time in the hour when the audience’s smiles fade.
‘Letters to Windsor House’ does not give us polished comedy, thrilling drama or musical virtuosity. This is, after all, Sh!t Theatre. But, add Becca and Louise’s energy, enthusiasm, authenticity and heart into the mix and something wonderful happens. It becomes a glorious, touching and unsettling experience that reverberates long after they have headed off to the bar.