Art & Culture
Step back into the Royal Docks in the 1960s with Jonny Woo’s new play Silvertown
British comedian, actor, cabaret and alternative variety figure Jonny Woo is developing a new play called Silvertown as part of his Join the Docks research and development project.
Silvertown focuses on life in the 1960s in the Royal Docks, exploring themes of sexuality, identity, race, politics, community and ‘safe spaces’ within society at the time.
We caught up with Jonny to find out more about Silvertown, his inspirations and what audiences can expect from this time-travelling original work.
Tell us more about the inspiration for the project.
I have two pieces of inspiration for Silvertown. The first is the book Last Exit To Brooklyn, which features a storyline about a closeted factory worker who falls for a 'femme' theatrical queen, which I really inspired me for this piece. I wanted to explore this more deeply than in the book so Silvertown features a closeted dock worker who falls for a younger gay man, but I’ve also added themes of gender identity, relationships in the context of different social settings, the idea of a safe space as well as racial identity and prejudice.
The second piece of inspiration is the now-lost pub, ‘The Kent Arms’, which was situated on Albert Road in the 60s, and was well-known for its LGBTQ+ clientele. I first heard about this pub when interviewing gay activist Stuart Feather about being gay in the 60's and he told me about going to this pub in the docks which was full of dockers, sailors and gay Mods dancing together. I thought, 'well that's a place I need to know more about'.
You interviewed older people from the Royal Docks to find out more about what life was like here in the 1960s, can you tell us more about this?
Silvertown is not a documentary, but I did want to make sure that the details around the play were as accurate as possible to bring to life the spirit of the pub and the area at the time. I wanted to speak to senior members of the Silvertown/North Woolwich community who remembered the area and might have known that pub or others, as well as the area generally.
I wanted to utilise real memories, snippets or anecdotes that people had relayed to me to trigger a line for a character’s story.
I explored questions like why did the pub exist? Who was drawn to it? How did others view it at the time? Was it safe in the area?
My central plot focuses on key characters that will cover many parts of the community. From dock workers, women who lived there, children who grew up in the area, LGBTQ+ community members, Irish, African and Caribbean communities, I wanted to talk to people from different people from all walks of life to discover stories I could include as ‘jumping off’ points in the play.
Why have you decided to set it in Silvertown and what’s your connection to the Royal Docks?
The location of the ‘The Kent Arms’ dictated where the play would be set and as I researched the more fascinating the area became. The area is rich in local culture, with a strong community and sometimes its own slang, Polari which was used amongst the gays in the pub.
The area and time are specific with cultural references different from today also. It is almost a different world, a different time to tell a story that is full of ideas relevant to contemporary society but told in a different way. I am working with the Silver Building in West Silvertown to develop the work and will be working with them on a much larger production post research and development stage.
Can you tell us about some of your past work?
I have been making shows in clubs, cabaret spaces theatres which develop intersectional cabaret work, such as Soho Theatre, for 20 years. I have my own LGBTQ pub, The Glory, which is a cultural and social centre for many people in a way that is like ‘The Kent Arms’. I love social history. Pub history and the place pubs sit within community as well as their effects on the community.
This is my first full play and the first time I have researched new characters to be played by actors, but thematically it is consistent with where my work takes me.
What do you want people to take away from your project?
I want people to come and be immersed in another world. Maybe it is an unfamiliar world, or perhaps it will be remarkably familiar, but I want it to feel real.
I want the characters to be strong and dynamic and I want audiences to become thrilled by an exciting story line of love, community, identity, and challenges.
I want people to be surprised and challenged themselves by themes in the play. I want people to feel like they entered into a community that was real and vivid, and I want the experience to stay with them and stimulate conversation.
More information on Jonny Woo’s project Silvertown will be released soon, for a sneak peek of some of the story, take a look at some of the key characters performing short monologues right here:
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