People Show: theatre misfits celebrate 50 years of creative anarchy


The post-dadaists of British theatre … People Show. Photograph: Zadoc Nava

It’s almost impossible to define People Show, who celebrate their 50th anniversary this week at Toynbee Studios in London with three days of performances, exhibitions, conversation and music. Especially music: People Show performances always include music. The first gig the group did, at the behest of Jeff Nuttall, was a “happening” created around a performance by a rising young band called Pink Floyd at the All Saints church hall in Notting Hill.

That led to People Show’s first proper show, which took place in the basement of Better Books in Soho in November 1966. It featured butchers’ hooks and hanging flesh, nylon sculptures made by Nuttall, three 60-watt lightbulbs and four performers: Laura Gilbert, John Darling, Sydney Palmer and Mark Long. That was People Show No 1. This week at Toynbee Studios they will be premiering No 132: The Story of Us.

Not bad for what Mark Long, in his new book, Nobody Knows But Everybody Remembers – a “totally prejudiced” history of People Show – calls “a bunch of misfit artists with no particular place to go who found a place of refuge that took them in and nurtured them”. He adds: “The financial rewards were minimal but at least it kept them off the dole, off the streets and out of jail (most of the time). For a relatively long duration.”

‘I’d rather crawl all the way to Jerusalem over broken glass than do another tour with them’ … People Show 118. Photograph: Zadoc Nava

Fifty years is indeed a long duration by theatre company standards. There have been downs along the way: back in 1996, Nuttall told a journalist that “I would rather crawl all the way to Jerusalem over broken glass than do another tour with them”. But there have been many ups as well, and perhaps there are lessons that can be learned for today’s theatre-makers from this company, which has included core members but also operated as a loose grouping of like-minded people who periodically come together to create work.

Their shows have a staggering range: lyrical, autumnal, menacing and possessed of a cool, self-distancing irony

Over the years, those shows have been unbridled hotchpotch of ways of working, making and delivering a production. As John Ashford observed in 1980, they are “the post-dadaists of British theatre, while their shows – collages of atmosphere and moods structured around a theme – have a staggering range: anarchic, lyrical, fantastical, autumnal, menacing, savagely comic and possessed of a cool, self-distancing irony”. There is no such thing as a house style. Every show is different, defined by the particular group of people who have come together to make it, because they really want to make it and feel that they must make it – and make it now. It means that, although the shows can be a bit of a lucky dip, they are never predictable.

Because of their roots in 1960s counterculture and the protest movement, those who founded and worked with People Show were seldom careerists. They have always made the shows they wanted to make, not the shows that would win them critical or Arts Council approval. Anna Furse, who has written the introduction to Long’s book, says that People Show are a manifestation of what has been dubbed “alternative culture”, pointing to the fact that the company have been “collaborative, cooperative, collective, creative and committed. Theatre not driven by careerist ambition, expansionist three-year plans and marketing strategies but the sheer love for the working process, and those you are working with.”

The People Show’s A Nice Quiet Night in 1967. Photograph: Pete Chadwick

Those terms are all buzzwords in theatre today, but often they don’t mean a great deal. On 1 December, as part of the birthday celebrations, the Royal Court’s Vicky Featherstone chairs a conversation looking at the influence of People Show and whether their kind of counterculture could happen today.

The time is ripe. As the funding system proves itself increasingly unfit for purpose, and as a generation of artists find themselves locked out of it, burdened by student debt, paying impossibly high rents and utterly disaffected by mainstream politics, they will seek alternative ways of working and find creative ways to subvert the current power structures. Perhaps, like People Show, for 50 years or more.