Royal Court / Martha@Mother / Escape Artists

March 2000

Along with le tout Londres, I was in Sloane Square last week for the press night of 'Dublin Carol' at the Royal Court. It's always a pleasure to be on the wrong side of the proscenium arch, sitting comfortably and watching other people do the work. Actually, I wasn't sitting as comfortably as I expected to be. Although much of the publicity surrounding the Court's re-opening has focused on the amazing consistency of its artistic output – from Ibsen to Osborne, Maeterlinck to McPherson - there's been a fair few column inches about the seats. Never before have theatre seats been subject to such scrutiny. True, they look divine, inviting terra-cotta leather with armrests which can be nudged aside to create 'love seats' – encouraging thigh contact, as chairman of the Royal Court, John Mortimer, put it in his post-performance speech. Clever stringy pouches provide a neat place for runaway programmes and you really do expect the ushers to come along and remind you to fasten your safety belt before curtain up. The seats are even nicely staggered to help you see beyond over-sized gentlemen or ladies with unfashionably big hair. But unlike the rest of the world – and here's the heresy – I didn't find them comfortable. An hour into the play and I was fidgeting like a cattle class passenger on a long haul flight. Perhaps they should take one more leaf out of the airline's book and provide those funny little pillows for lumbar support.

I should know, because I've just arrived in New York after a backbreaking seven hours in economy. I'm here for a guest stint at a club in the heart of the MeatPacking district. No, I haven't resorted to table dancing just yet. I'm performing with Richard Move, AKA Martha, in his Bessie Award winning show, Martha@Mother. I danced with him in London last October, on a stage 12 feet square, but the venue here is even smaller. Richard isn't stupid, of course. The tiny stage means that nothing in the existing repertoire will fit, so his guests are constantly obliged to come up with new work, turning Martha@Mother into New York's creative hotspot. I'm going to be dancing a fast paced number cooked up for me by Mark Baldwin which, out of necessity, omits any geographical movement whatsoever and replaces it with motion of the body. Anyone looking into our rehearsals last week probably thought I was suffering a series of convulsions.

Move's Martha evenings are legendary in New York, and he attracts real-life legends to come and perform with him. This afternoon in rehearsal, from a distance of three feet, I watched Merce Cunningham (the real one) interviewed by Martha Graham (the not-so-real one) about their years together in her company. Even without the jet lag, it would have been surreal. Cunningham is in his eighties now, and suffers horribly from arthritis. He performs very little these days, but he is making an exception for Martha and once the interview was over, he rehearsed his solo, 'Chair'. First presented in the early seventies, 'Chair' has been reinvented time and time again to accommodate his decreasing mobility. In its present incarnation he perches on a stool and dances with the only thing he can still manipulate with any degree of certainty – his face. It was extraordinary: an entire chapter of dance history embodied in the changing expressions of an old man.

Escape Artists is a Cambridge based theatre company with an unusual provenance. As the name hints, it's made up primarily of paroled and ex-prisoners. Escaped, but legally so. It was founded by Matthew Taylor, a theatre director whose experience of prison has always been on the right side of the law. In 1991, in perhaps one of the more bizarre job offers ever to come his way, Taylor received an invitation from two 'lifers' to direct a play inside HMP Wayland, Norfolk. Taylor stayed for four years, staging productions like 'The Homecoming' and 'Waiting for Godot', then left to set up Escape Artists, on the basis that it really wasn't fair to offer so much support before release and absolutely nothing afterwards.

I first saw Escape Artists over a year ago, and I was bowled over. Idealistic liberals like me – and that's an attitude of mind, not a political colour – bang on all the time about how contact with the arts can change lives, but here were all my beliefs in action. And on top of that, they were good.

During March, Escape Artists will move into the Royal Opera House for a three-week residency in the Clore Studio Upstairs. As part of the Artists' Development Initiative, a scheme designed to support emerging artists and small-scale companies, Escape Artists will present Blagger, a play devised by the actors themselves and based on their own experiences. It might not be the sort of thing you immediately associate with Covent Garden, but mainstream cultural life is there for those people on the margins of society, too. 'Access' is not just about reducing ticket prices. After all, the West End is not that much more expensive than Wembley. It's a question of choice – and through Escape Artists, a group of ex-offenders is finding out about choices they never knew they had.