At first glance, it’s hard to imagine a more left-field choice of topic for a Chickenshed production. The Washing Line follows the tragic true story of Jonestown and the Peoples Temple, where in November 1978 more than 900 people died in a mass suicide at the command of cult leader Jim Jones. On closer inspection, however, it’s not so out there; Chickenshed have never shied away in the past from difficult topics, with previous spring shows tackling such issues as climate change and mental health, and it’s also easy to see how an organisation that prides itself on inclusivity and being open to all would be frustrated to see those same values twisted and corrupted by one man’s lust for power. And then there’s the depressing fact that in 2022 we find ourselves living in a world of fake news and misinformation, with similarly dangerous and even tragic consequences for those who choose to follow blindly.
The Washing Line began life as a Chickenshed Foundation Degree production in 2017 called What’s Wrong With Jim, and has been re-worked by Dave Carey and Bethany Hamlin, with direction by Michael Bossisse. The production combines movement, music, dance and multimedia to piece together the story – and it certainly makes an instant impact, as audience members step from the lively atmosphere of the lobby into an auditorium full of bodies. This unnerving and powerful image is further enhanced by the sounds of buzzing flies, which conjure up the suffocating heat of Jonestown, Guyana. Once underway, the show uses shifting timelines to paint a picture of life in the compound, culminating in the devastating events of November 1978, alongside the investigation attempting to figure out what went wrong and to identify the victims.
Presented in the round, the production is extremely immersive, which means that while the audience feels uncomfortably close to the tragedy, we’re also very involved in the joy and sense of community portrayed in earlier scenes set within the compound. The creative team have very pointedly made the focus of the story not Jones’ intentions but those of his followers, who set out to find a better world free of racism and violence, and continued to cling to the hope of finding it right to the very end. One of the show’s most moving sequences features the washing line of the title, where we see the camaraderie and collaboration between the group’s members, and the joyous opening number in Act 2 threatens to sweep us all up in their optimism and shared faith – a stark contrast to the end of Act 1, which paints a dark picture of the life they left behind. As a result, despite the benefit of hindsight, we do get a real sense of why people wanted to be a part of the Peoples Temple project, and why they were so reluctant to give up on their dream and return home even when that dream began to unravel.
Despite excluding him from the final scene, it would be impossible to tell the story of Jonestown without Jim Jones, and Jonny Morton makes a convincingly persuasive yet sinister figure as the cult leader who has so many – among them his wife Marceline (Gemilla Shamruk) and new recruit Jessie (Lara Decaro) – under his spell. There are also strong performances from Ashley Driver and Finn Walters as the detectives trying to make sense of such unimaginable horror, and Sebastian Gonzalez as Congressman Ryan, the politician who was murdered by Peoples Temple members before he could alert the world to what was happening in Jonestown. The true power of this show, however, lies in its ensemble performances, and it’s when the entire cast of around 200 people is on stage that its impact is most keenly felt.
While the subject matter of The Washing Line makes it a difficult watch at times, the show captures a healthy balance of the good and the bad, which means it’s far from being as depressing as it perhaps sounds on paper. In its closing moments we’re shown footage from Jonestown, bringing home the point that as incredible as they may seem, the events we’ve just watched on stage really did happen. There’s also commentary from Chickenshed members, explaining how they personally connect to the story, and their insights bring the show to a close with a sense of optimism that just maybe we – and particularly our younger generations – can prevent such a horrific event taking place again in the future.
The Washing Line is at Chickenshed until 26th March.