Handle with Care: Theatre company stage play in Old Street storage unit facility

Handle with Care will be staged at Urban Locker in Old Street

Handle with Care will be staged at Urban Locker in Old Street - Credit: Archant

A featureless self-storage facility with a labyrinthine network of corridors and lockers: it’s not exactly your typical creative muse.

Terry O'Donovan and Daphna Attias

Terry O'Donovan and Daphna Attias - Credit: Archant

But that’s where inspiration struck for immersive theatre company Dante or Die, who perform their works anywhere but on a traditional stage.

Three years ago, it was at Islington’s Hilton Hotel with I Do, where audiences were given six simultaneous perspectives in six different hotel rooms 10 minutes before a wedding.

This time, Urban Locker Self-Storage off the Old Street roundabout will inexplicably become a theatrical space next month for site-specific Handle with Care. It’s a play by I Do writer Chloe Moss, which tracks one woman’s life over 25 years: from the ‘80s to the present day, through her relationship with her belongings.

Performed by two actresses who play Zoe’s younger and older self, the women swap halfway through the 90-minute show after the character has children.

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Although the storage facility will be closed to the general public while the performances take place, the base has not been closed off during rehearsals.

“We were doing dress rehearsal last night and people came in to store their stuff halfway through,” says Terry O’Donovan, co-artistic director of Dante or Die.

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“That’s exciting.”

Performing in a working facility presents its challenges, though.

As well as trying not to annoy the customers storing or collecting their things, they’ve had to contend with construction works while the facility was being extended.

Finding a business who would let them perform in their space also proved tricky, taking them a year to finally forge a partnership after months of rejection from other organisations.

The search proved so challenging that the company almost gave up to do the unthinkable: perform the piece on stage, in a proper theatre.

“It would have been much easier to do it in our own space,” admits O’Donovan.

“But there’s something about creating a partnership with a business, with other people who work there, and getting stories from them.

“Storage is a billion pound industry, it’s huge, and that is one of the reasons to do the show. These bases are all over the country, they’re everywhere and they all have human stories.

“That’s why we kept coming back and saying: we have to do this in a real place,” he adds. “To put an artistic vibe into somewhere that’s quite cold and mundane is really exciting to us, because it jars against reality.”

Inspiration for a play about self-storage struck when O’Donovan’s co-artistic director Daphna Attias used a unit to store one of the company’s old sets.

Chatting to an employee about the kinds of people who used these facilities, the staff member revealed to her that it was often for very human reasons that people would come to these clinical spaces: break-ups, family deaths, or new lives abroad.

Handle with Care’s protagonist Zoe visits her storage unit sporadically, but almost always at pinnacle moments in her life.

The audience are taken around in small groups of 20 at a time and see her old ‘80s clothes, her wedding dress, baby clothes for her daughter, and then her daughter all grown up aged 16.

“We want people to think about the reasons they keep things and the family members who’ve kept things, to think about whether they need them,” says O’Donovan.

“We also want them to think about consumerism: it’s so easy to get things now and we have so much stuff, but what do we actually need?”

The show is prop-heavy, as you can imagine for a play about stuff, and 90 per cent of the items used in the show have been donated by the company members’ family and friends.

“There are funny things, like a pink flamingo, stuff that makes you wonder: how did I get that thing? Why do I have that in my house?

“It’s actually from my house. I saw it in a shop window, and I said: ‘Oh isn’t that cute?’

“My mother in law was with me and bought it, so now we have a flamingo that lives on our balcony.

“I just thought: ‘That needs to be in the show.’”

The other 10 per cent of the props, though, are actually unwanted items left at the storage facility: a guitar, a bean bag, and red pouffes for the audience to sit on, for example.

It all adds to the authenticity of the show, O’Donovan says.

“The audience will know it’s real. They’ll be asking: who else has their stuff in here?

“They won’t be thinking: that’s just a set. It’s real life.”

Handle with Care will be performed at Urban Locker from June 2 until June 25.

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