Saturday, July 21, 2012

Portobello Road - Not the Same Old Song and Dance (A Slightly Late Assessment)

When one hears the phrase “Portobello Road,” the majority might immediately think of an overcrowded flea market or swap meet filled with tourists and locals alike and nothing else. However, as I am admittedly from the generation that was weaned on the teat of Mickey Mouse (arguably one of America’s greatest totemic symbols), I immediately started singing Portobello Road, from Walt Disney’s Bed Knobs and Broomsticks and conjured up fanciful visions of finding arcane artifacts, magic books, and of course an old street with an air of mystery and exotica teeming with people ready to burst into song. Now of course, after reading that last sentence, a red flag most likely shot up waving frantically about whilst warning sirens started clamoring in your head screaming for you to get out now before any more time is invested reading such rubbish, but hear me out. (Or in this case is it read me out…?)

Whilst Portobello Road does contain a sense of mystery and wonder for Disney fans, a word to the wise: not everything is accurately portrayed in movies, especially Disney movies. In the movie, Portobello Road is portrayed as a flea market filled with dodgy characters willing to sell knock-offs and fake reproductions of priceless items whilst claiming them to be the real thing. Okay, so not too terribly far from the truth as it stands today, but what about all that singing and dancing with the Indian men, the sailors, the samba dancers and those guys in the kilts? Okay, that part might not have been accurate, but the idea behind it is.

Portobello Road may be a great place to find antiques, old books, paintings, food, tacky tourist souvenirs and the like, but it still remains a cultural epicenter for diversity. As you shuffle your way down the street (let’s face it, the streets are entirely too crowded to actually adopt a proper walk) you will bump into all sorts of people, snippets of conversations in many different languages wafting by your ears. You will see a myriad of shops, food stands, and farmers’ markets all from different cultures. There were foods of all kinds: crepes, curry, gelato, noodles, pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, etc. There was even a special section in the farmers’ markets that sold all Middle Eastern food.

So, Disney had the market aspect right (only now there is modern commodities as well) and they had the idea of cultural diversity right as well (even if portrayed using cultural stereotypes), but what about all that singing and dancing? Isn’t that just par for the course in Disney films? Aren’t the musical tap numbers obligatory for all of their films? Well, yes. But that doesn’t mean that current day Portobello Road does have an appreciation for the performing arts. In fact, the whole of London has an appreciation for the arts and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is no different.

For the past six years, InTRANSIT promotes a summer program that transforms the borough into a public spectacle of art appreciation. On their schedule this year was the Portobello Road Arts Day where they had live shows, trick marionettes, and kinetic sculpture.

Wandering down the street, just taking in the view an old cart that looked as if it belonged to a tinker of old was placed on the side of the road. It was decorated in a fashion most becoming with pots, vials, old instruments, tools, scrap metal, and other miscellaneous bric-a-brac. It seemed to be abandoned with none but the coachman Death to guard it. Old music reminiscent of better days played while bubbles would occasionally spill forth from some hidden panel to amuse the crowds that were gathered around it in curiosity. This mechanical marvel is a creation of the Mechanical Menagerie, creators of street art using fire, water, music, and reclaimed everyday objects to transform the ordinary into an extraordinary spectacle.

Thirsting for more with their appetites merely whetted the crowd then headed down the road to Colville Square for even more entertainment. The trick Marionette show, Monkey Biz, performed by Movingstage Marionette Company (who also run Puppet Theatre Barge) was by far my favorite show. The puppets used are extremely intricate with a series of individual parts that are each controlled by a separate set of strings and are a feat of craftsmanship. These particular puppets that featured in the show had been handcrafted by one of the puppeteers’ grandfather. Set in a small park off the main street, tucked in and secluded the small stand engendered a sense of intimacy as it entreated the crowds to gather around to see the show. Children excitedly sat right in front of the small stage enticed by the promises of monkeys performing acrobatic circus tricks set to a mix of live accordion, guitar, and harmonica music.

As the monkey marionettes were so artfully manipulated into their performance, the crowd would gasp and cheer as each monkey completed a trick. Perhaps the audience wouldn’t have been so responsive if it hadn’t been for the children present, but I’m glad the children were there since it added to the experience and allowed everyone to let down their barriers to become emotionally invested with the small simian circus performers. Every time the monkeys finished a trick parents would clap and cheer, “Yaaaaaaaaaaay,” drawing out the syllable as their children were wont to do. But it wasn’t just for the children’s entertainment that the parents cheered. These marionettes that were so skillfully handled are impressive in their own right. As you watch them perform and flip through the air you forget about the puppeteers (who dress in black so that you do just that) and merely marvel as they dance, juggle, and lift heavy pipes.

The music was matched beautifully to the performance only enhancing the experience. For example when one of the monkeys came out carrying a huge pipe, the music would change from being light and lively to using deeper, slower tones implying a sense of weighty lumbering. This was further emphasized by the monkey’s gait which also became slow and laborious to match the music. The technique of matching music to action continued so that any time a monkey was about to do something difficult, the music would change and grow suspenseful and then suddenly become light and lively once the monkey succeeded which would in turn cause the audience to feel relieved and cheer once more. When the show ends and the monkeys take a bow, the audience is sad to see them go so enjoyable was the last twenty minutes or so.

Overall, InTRANSIT added a fun, artistic entertainment element to the otherwise standard (well, as standard as Portobello Road can be) hustle and bustle shopping experience that is Portobello Road on a Saturday and created the real-life modern version of Disney’s antiquated conceptualization as portrayed in Bed Knobs and Broomsticks. Truly, how is one supposed to enjoy Portobello Road without them?

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