TAITMAIL The toys we are

This column has had a lot to say about recovery reinvention, how the people who run the arts are having to think outside the box that’s outside the box, and try to ignore politicians but focus instead on local communities and even councils for support where they wouldn’t have before, keep risk to a minimum and work with partners. So it’s good to see that an old friend is doing just that.

Remember Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, that fantastical cross of seaside postcards, slot machines, the artist's eye and the craftsman's hand? For 15 years the collection of 130 beautifully carved figures performing impossible tasks to create a joke at the insertion of a 10p coin was the carrot that persuaded thousands of kids to go to Covent Garden, that had dads committing hours to cardboard cut-out recreations, and gave mums an hour's leave for some personal shopping.

It closed in London in 2000 and took on a peripatetic life touring the world, but now it has a new permanent home. Born at the seaside, it has returned there, albeit a couple of hundred miles along the coast. Cabaret is reopening, rethought and re-teamed, at Hastings as a community interest company (CIC) to give delight to further generations of automaton lovers as practitioners as well as audiences.

In 1979 Cabaret was a tiny antiques shop in Falmouth, Cornwall, whose proprietor, Sue Jackson, decided to mount a small exhibition of the automata she had seen local craftsmen building. The exhibition stayed, a collection grew and she came to commission artists to make them for her to sell, and to entertain customers, in the process championing amovement of sculptors turning a Victorian seaside arcade-type diversion into a contemporary art form and compiling a collection. Cabaret has 160 automata now, mostly in store.

Jackson’s artists became minor celebrities - Paul Spooner, Peter Markey, Ron Fuller, Tim Hunkin - and their creations became more elaborate, funnier and fanciful, and her whimsical attraction became a museum.

Then, unable to get local support for a move to larger premises, she took a giant leap away from the promenade and leased a corner of the Covent Garden Piazza where she ran Cabaret for 15 years. Thousands were lured in to turn the irresistible handles that operated the sex-change machine, or made the sheep shear the farmer, or made a party of Victorian British seamen clatter their knives and forks on a table in prospect of their supper of dodo.

But it was an enthusiasm, not a business, and when the rent rose beyond affordability she had no choice but to close. Instead, her daughter Sarah Alexander took it on with fresh gusto, an eye to Jackson’s vision but also a commercial eye, so that that enthusiasm became a business which is now being turned into a community project, a CIC 

Sue Jackson died suddenly in 2016 and almost single-handed but with carefully sought associations around the world Alexander had created a travelling exhibition that toured globally until costs, Brexit and pandemic took their toll. The touring show is still on the road, but Alexander is taking Cabaret down a new path that goes beyond mere entertainment. She’s inviting members of the public to learn how to make the handles as well as turn them.

“Ever since Cabaret Mechanical Theatre was first opened in Covent Garden in 1985, people have wanted to learn how to make their own automata” Alexander says. “Our collection has always inspired this, and now we want to put the learning at the forefront of the business. To do this we have created a community interest company which better reflects our learning ethos.” 

Rock House, an unremarkable 60s office building in Hastings, used to be Rothermere House, home to the local newspaper. It was rundown and almost empty when it was taken on by a non-profit community land trust, Hastings Commons Neighbourhood Ventures, devoted to community-led regeneration, which now has eight buildings in the White Rock area of the town. Rock opened in 2016 and has grown with living rent flats, commercial units, workspaces and desks for start-ups, small businesses and local entrepreneurs, but until now its large basement has been empty.

This is Cabaret’s permanent new home and the venue for its latest enterprise, the Mechanical Making Space. In July Alexander and her co-director Lisa Finch launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise the £20,000 they need to open, and in a month they had raised almost £33,000 and still rising.

The automaton collector, writer and creator of the Hastings-based TV detective Foyle, Anthony Horowitz, is Cabaret’s new patron, and the automaton artist Tim Hunkin brings his unique approach as the outfit’s chief engineer – this is his cartoon vision of how it will be. Hunkin was one of Sue Jackson’s first protégées, and he has made it his profession with his own permanent display at Southwold Pier in Suffolk. “I was trained as an engineer but most of what I learned has come down to thinking with my hands, they seem to take over, and there’s an element of that in everything that’s made today” he says. “But there’s no working with hands in schools now, and what Cabaret is starting up in Hastings is fantastic”.

What Alexander and Finch are setting up is a series of displays and workshops, with a panel of artist facilitators and a board of advisors, plus exhibitions of their collection, and an automata repair shop, and the Cabaret Mechanical Making Space will open on October 24 with a family automata-making public workshop 

Along with Hastings Commons Cabaret’s partners include the charity Science Projects which explores with children aged five to 16 how science, technology, engineering, art and maths can work together to make things. East Susses College Hastings whose engineering students will get work experience and design practice in the workshop. Engineered Arts is the UK’s leading designer and maker of entertainment robots.

“We have built up amazing connections with artists and an international team of facilitators over the past 40 years” Sarah Alexander says, “and we are thrilled to bring this into the heart of the community in Hastings.”


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