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Matt Stokes Brings a Unique Take on "Penny Gaff" Culture to Stratford Underground Station
Matt Stokes, The Stratford Gaff: A Serio-Comick-Bombastick - Operatick Interlude, 2010. Production photograph of Chantelle, Ascention Eagles. Photo: Nadia Bettega. Courtesy the artist and Art on the Underground.

LONDON.- A musical hall extraordinaire, beatbox champ and an operatic soprano; these are just a handful of the colourful collection of local performers who are entertaining visitors at Stratford Underground station, courtesy of a new film and installation by artist Matt Stokes. The film will be on show for nine months at the station and is part of an ongoing series of artworks at the station in the lead up to London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Matt Stokes’ ‘The Stratford Gaff: A Serio-Comic-Operatick-Bombastick Interlude’ is the latest contemporary artwork commissioned by Art on the Underground on the London Underground and belongs to a collection of art projects for the Jubilee line. Around 170,000 journeys are made through Stratford station a day.

The project draws heavily on the East End’s rich narrative of popular entertainment. ‘The Stratford Gaff’ is a contemporary take on the Victorian ‘Penny Gaffs’, where, for only a penny, audiences could be entertained by short sketches such as comic songs, dances and magic, all supported by the ‘house band’, an essential component of the original ‘Gaffs’.

Stokes is installing a multi-channel film work on flat-screens located in the mezzanine area of the station to replace the showman’s booth from which the Victorian Gaff would have been played. A long wall displaying playbills and life-size portraits of the performers further signify an area for entertainment in the station.

Murray Melvin, celebrated actor and archivist at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, is one of the performers in Stokes’ piece. Other acts include: the Pearly King of Newham; beatbox artist Mr K; escapologist Larry Barnes; Indian dancers Kali and Bhanu Kanthagnany; owl impersonator Charlie Seber; soprano Sovra Newman; MC Dizzle Kid; cheerleading squad, Ascension Eagles; Bollywood star Mangal Singh; magician and female impersonator, Victoria Elizabeth Day and the ‘house band’, Aven Romale. Each performer’s act lasts a few minutes and offers regular visitors to the station a chance to catch a different performance each time.

Artist Matt Stokes, says “Exploring Stratford and the wider borough of Newham through its heritage and communities has been an exciting journey. From early meetings with Murray Melvin at the Theatre Royal Stratford East and seeing the Ascension Eagles training at Gallions Reach, to conversations with local organisations and residents that led to the involvement of performers such as Charlie Seber, Dizzle Kid and Elizabeth Victoria Day … all these things sparked ideas and possibilities that led to ‘The Stratford Gaff’.”

Louise Coysh, Curator for Art on the Underground, says “We’re delighted to have worked with Matt on this project. He has not only given us an insight into some diverse and engaging performance, but has also helped us explore the wider borough of Newham through its culture and local history. I hope customers travelling through Stratford station will enjoy the installation, from leisurely travellers watching an act from start to finish or commuters, passing through the station, catching only a few seconds of a different performance each day, and eventually building up a picture of the entire show.”

Matt Stokes, The Stratford Gaff: A Serio-Comick-Bombastick-Operatick-Interlude, is a new film at Stratford Underground station, open until July 2011. It is one of a series of artworks commissioned by Art on the Underground for the Jubilee line, exploring time and its value. For more information about this project and Art on the Underground, please visit

Stratford Underground Station | Matt Stokes | "Penny Gaff" |

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