Stories are scattered like confetti across south-east London’s streets for Greenwich and Docklands international festival, where the opening night saw robots roam, streamers fly and dancers dangle from cranes.
It starts in a caravan. For the last six months, theatre company Action Hero has travelled around Europe asking strangers to sing love songs. The project responds to a lack of listening from both sides in the conversations about Brexit. Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse wanted to find something that crossed the divide. Mum, grandma and I pick a song grandma has sung to us since childhood. We scooch in and sing together, if in slightly different keys and time signatures.
Action Hero have created hotspots across Europe, with one on Greenwich Park’s meridian line, where you can listen to all of the songs collected. They will play for 24 hours a day in perpetuity; a mark of endless love. It’s a generous piece. There’s something extremely buoyant about such a brief encounter frozen for ever.
More explosive is Initiative.dkf’s political piece Scalped. Created by Damilola K Fashola, the agitated dance exhibition explores the scrutiny of black women’s hair. Five young women itch with the weight of other people’s judgments, clawing their bodies against the pavement and each other. They create intimacy on this huge outdoor stage as what starts as oppression gives way first to celebration, then to fury. They pulsate to Tyrone Isaac-Stuart’s forceful sound design before climbing a metallic profile of a woman with enormous wigs in varying styles, standing triumphant above our gaze.
Across the street is Close-Act Theatre’s i-Puppets parade. Hoisted above human controllers, the robotic puppets pounce with pincers and a giant looming eye, exuding an alien bubbling sound. The three puppeteers look like spies with dark glasses. They’re brilliant at riffing with the crowd, diving into selfies and chasing children down the street.
But the monstrous puppets do not provide the most surprising encounter of the evening. Walking to another outdoor venue, we pass a square that, clear half an hour ago, is now covered with blue and white streamers. Kids gather the largest bundles they can manage and hurtle down the street, running blobs of blue. The mystery is solved when we bump into Joyous Urban Mess, a troup of turtle-like figures blowing streamers into trees and at passersby, leaving chaos and laughter in their wake.
Nearby, crowds gather for Frock performed by Stopgap, the exhilarating company working with artists of varying disabilities and neurodiversities. A gender-bending cast of six play with power as they swirl in straight-laced suits and 50s tea-dresses. Hannah Miller and Oliver Austin’s thudding soundtrack goes from clean to chaotic with tinkling crockery shattered by riotous punk. The dancers grow wilder, demonstrating the ability of the human body when we move away from traditional ideas of gracefulness; particularly startling is when Nadenh Poan does a backflip in his wheelchair.
As the sun sets, the finale lights up. Transe Express’ Cristal Palace perches a jazz band in a gigantic chandelier dangling from a crane. Another band stream smoke below and dancers leap on stage, sliding from silks and clambering up poles. If there’s a story under the grandiose beauty, it’s not clear – but it hardly matters as these human fireworks draw cheers and gasps from the crowd. The festival is so delightfully, magically strange, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the performers spun around and disappeared in a puff of smoke.