Back and Fill Margate

“Back & Fill is a coastal call to arms.

A direct response to this coronavirus crisis, Back & Fill festivals will take place in seaside towns around the UK. This movement is inspired by a need to support the fragile economy of seaside towns.

From Margate to St Ives, Swansea to Stromness, the ecology of independent shops, small businesses and creative industries is about to be hit hard. But ideas of health and wellbeing, being outdoors, playfulness and innovation, and fresh food – the same things that drew the Georgians to the seaside 300 years ago – are exactly what we’ll need to recover from the current crisis.”

Hannah and Hanna in Dreamland

Fifteen years ago, the National Front marched in Margate. The end of the 20th Century was much like the start, and refugees were fleeing from war in Europe. Arriving in Britain, they were met by fear, hostility, anger and lies. The Jews, fleeing Germany and Eastern Europe in the 1930s, had received a similar welcome in British seaside towns. Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts paraded in Worthing in the mid-1930s, and the National Front continued the tradition in Margate 65 years later. Some things never change; perhaps racism runs through seaside towns like letters run through seaside rock.

As the 21st Century begun, the Isle of Thanet was home to only about 3000 asylum seekers, most living in Margate. They were fleeing from something real. A local doctor reported treating “shrapnel wounds, scars from beatings and torture, wounds from landmines” and the psychological problems associated with such injuries. The people he was treating included doctors, ex-army officers, dentists and teachers. Many were Kosovans, in England to escape death at the hands of the Serbs.

Once here, they were met with open hostility by people who lived in a largely closed, settled community, unused to foreigners, and which was struggling with its own problems. The local industry, a tourist trade which had started in the 1700s, had collapsed. Thanet’s people had always had low incomes, uncertain jobs, and seasonal employment but, by 2000, things had reached a low point. Boarding houses were filled with Londoners, resettled by local authorities who had run out of space in the capital. These new residents often brought their own problems, which were only increased by unfamiliar surroundings and social isolation.

And the relationships London’s local authorities had made with landlords in Margate, meant they could use the town to house their refugees, too. Once grand hotels like the Nayland Rock, and the larger, prouder guesthouses in Cliftonville, were just empty spaces to council officers. Seaside landladies saw a quick buck, and either filled their vacancies or sold up to London councils. Kosovans didn’t choose to come to Margate; they were sent here.

“The people in Thanet don’t like us, nobody likes us,” one told the local paper, “We are here because of the war, because our lives were being threatened. We are not here because it is an easy life.”

A local teenager saw things differently: “They come over here and they have it easy. Then they are rude, they try and rule the place, they barge past and are very arrogant. They are trying to take over. I am not a racist person. I don’t support what the National Front do, but asylum seekers are not liked by a lot of people.”
Of course, asylum seekers never did take over. In 2015, just 8.59%of the population in Thanet were born outside of the country. The national average is 12.5%, London has 37%, and even in sleepy, middle class Canterbury 10.96% of the population were born abroad.

In Thanet today, 11,599 people out of a population of 134,186 were born outside the UK. 3500 are from new EU member states, such as Croatia, Latvia and Poland, and 3700 from the old EU states, such as Belgium, France and Italy. 4300 people are from outside the EU. Very few are from Kosovo.

P1180988P1190009Playwright John Retallack wrote Hannah and Hanna, about a 16 year old Margate girl meeting a Kosovan girl and forming a friendship across hostile lines, in 2000.
The founder of Actors’ Touring Company, a director of the Oxford Stage Company, Retallack is particularly interested in theatre for and about young audiences. He’s written a dozen plays for young people, and has recently spent two months with La Chartreuse de Neuville in France, researching the lives of young refugees in the notorious camps in Calais.

Returning to Margate in 2015 to write a sequel , Hannah and Hanna in Dreamland, to his earlier play, he struggled to find any Kosovans to talk to. He journeyed instead to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, to find that most people had returned there, after the war.

He found a city with a hard past enjoying a rebirth that, in some ways, mirrored Margate’s own.

P1190036.JPGMargate today has a growing tourist trade. The new visitors are here for Turner Contemporary, the Old Town’s vintage shops and cupcake cafes, and the Hemingway-branded Dreamland, where ‘heritage’ is a dirty word but ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’ are perfectly acceptable. The town is the hippest destination for London’s cool under 40s, and is in the middle of a property bubble as people relocate here, swapping East End flats for big seaside homes as they start families. This new crowd, known locally as DFLs (Down From Londons) , experience a lesser version of the anger the Kosovans experienced before. There are fears of gentrification, of rising property prices, of the new ideas these economic migrants bring with them.

And there’s still a racist tension underneath everyday life too, still a fear that the town’s somehow being taken over, and it’s most evident among a slightly older generation, who saw their town’s fall, and are still looking for someone to blame. And a younger generation have inherited that anger. The teenager quoted in the Thanet Gazette has gone from “I am not a racist person…” to having a pitbull tattooed on his chest, and giving his support on Facebook to pages like the English Defence League, True British Patriots, English and Proud, the Royal England Infidel and one called ‘I Was Born In The Uk. So Why Do I Have Less Rights Then Immigrants’ [sic].

UKIP tried to capitalise on this cross-generational anger in the elections in 2015. Throwing everything they could at the Isle of Thanet, swinging a well-funded party campaign into action, UKIP booked every billboard for months, filled hotels with their campaign teams, and pushed leaflets through every letterbox every week. They failed to get their prospective MP Nigel Farage elected. The party collapsed into bitter infighting soon after.


So while many things in Margate are the same, 15 years on, there are great differences too. Hannah’s still friends with Hanna, but it’s a different world they live in. Margate’s new London incomers are more used to a multicultural society, and the town’s relaxing into the 21st century.

Retallack’s new play might find that perhaps, just perhaps, it’s possible to change the letters in a stick of rock.


There will be a rehearsed reading of excerpts from Hannah and Hanna and Hannah and Hanna In Dreamland at Turner Contemporary as part of Looping The Loop. The event is organised by UK Art International and Theatre Royal Margate.

Hannah and Hanna In Margate is an ongoing photographic series by Dan Thompson, capturing Retallack in Margate, as he researches, writes and tests the new play ahead of a UK tour in 2017. It will be exhibited alongside the rehearsed reading at Turner Contemporary before accompanying the show on tour in 2017.

The Red Chair

Great theatre gets inside you, and leaves its shadows across the world when you look at it afterwards.

David Glass Ensemble’s production of Gormenghast, which I probably saw more than 20 years ago, had that effect. The world looked different afterwards. Darker, more shadowed, layered. It still does. Theatre De Complicite did the same to me. So did the work of Bruce Gilchrist.

When I watched the preview of Clod Ensemble’s new show The Red Chair, I had a similar feeling. Like David Glass Ensemble and Complicite, the show conjures a dark, twisted world and tells a long tale on stage.

But while David Glass and Complicite rely on a whole company, The Red Chair creates that intensity with just one actor on stage.

Sarah Cameron wrote The Red Chair and performs it. It’s two hours long. It’s an intense, physical experience, for her and for the audience – there’s no interval, no respite. Cameron makes a decaying household from words and once she’s created that place she tells the story of a man who eats and eats until he becomes swallowed by the chair he was sitting in, and the story of his wife who feeds him, and the story of their forgotten child. She drags you through a Grim(ms) Fairytale, full of lush lyrical language and tumbling poetry.

The world she creates looks, I think, a little like this:

Follow Dan Thompson’s board Red Chair on Pinterest.

The set doesn’t: it’s just Cameron, a chalk circle to contain the things she conjures, and a wooden chair. There’s a shot of whisky and some chocolate for the audience. They only reinforce the sense that this is some dark mass, some strange ritual.

The Red Chair is coming to Margate. Go, and I promise you won’t ever forget it.





In the in 18 months since moving to Margate, I’ve been to more theatre than in the 15 years before that, when I was living in Worthing. I’ve been spoiled – drowning in a sea of good shows, great performances, interesting interventions across the town. I’ve seen Steven Berkoff, an army of mysterious Red Ladies spreading across the town, a crazed sequel to The Tempest, shows about explorers alone in a hut somewhere and the workers in the huts at Bletchley Park. I’ve experienced 366 Days of Kindness which had a bit of me in it, watched The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Reduced), spent an evening with John Cooper Clarke, and seen the rebirth of repertory in Paines Plough’s Roundabout. One good thing after another, more than I can see (I kick myself for the things that I’ve missed). The programming by the Theatre Royal has been to theatre what Turner Contemporary’s shows have been to the visual arts.

So now, in a small way, I’m returning to theatre, which is where my career in the arts started. I’m helping to bring new people to see a series of shows, as part of Fuel’s  New Theatre In Your Neighbourhood project, funded by Arts Council England and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

The next show as part of that programme is Feral In Margate.

Feral combines puppetry, film, digital technology and live sound to create and destroy a world in front
 of its audience’s eyes. Joe looks back at the town of his childhood. Bright, vibrant and idyllic the world resembles a haven of comfort. But as the walls are peeled back, the story of a community’s fall unfolds around him.

Feral seamlessly blends film and live performance. Puppeteers manipulate and bring to life a tiny world, while simultaneously creating a live animation, as they follow its every breath via a digital camera.

The show is being remade for Margate, and to build on that, we’re asking people to film their favourite Margate place, and upload it with the #mymargate hashtag. Nothing fancy: I shot my contribution on my phone, in less than three minutes. All entrants’ films will be screened before the Feral in Margateperformance on Friday 13th March and the winner will receive a bespoke puppet from the show, a piece of the set and a £50 John Lewis Voucher