The Stratford Gaff: A Serio-Comick-Bombastick-Operatick Interlude

Matt Stokes

A film for Stratford Underground station
7 October 2010 – 20 October 2011

Part of the following series:

Stratford Commission

Jubilee Line Series

Art on the Underground commissioned artist Matt Stokes to create a new work for Stratford Underground station in response to the area, its history and the people who live and work there. Stokes brought together a diverse group of local performers to create a spectacular film installation at the station, The Stratford Gaff: A Serio-Comick-Bombastick-Operatick Interlude.

As its title suggests, this work draws on the East End’s rich history of popular entertainment, theatre and cinema. It offers viewers a contemporary take on the Victorian ‘Penny Gaffs’, notorious temporary theatres that often sprang up in areas inhabited by costermongers, or street traders. For a penny, audiences were entertained by quick-fire performances including comic songs, dances, music, acrobatics and short plays.

Installed in the station was a long wall displaying portraits and playbills, designating an area for entertainment. The ‘Gaff’ itself came to life via three large screens, on which the players perform their acts, accompanied by a ‘house band’. Mirroring the busy life of the station, each show lasted just a few minutes, offering regular travellers a chance to see a different performance on every journey.

Stokes’ artistic practice is driven by an interest in discovering what unites people in a particular place and how these connections evolve in response to specific events or moments. Through collaborations with people and groups, he produces films, installations and events. Recent projects have involved working with musicians and fans of the punk scene in Austin, Texas, to drawing together the historical and contemporary worlds of folk music in the Northeast of England and Camden Town. His project for Stratford began with research into the area’s local history.

Stratford’s importance as a trading centre grew in the nineteenth century, assisted by rapid industrialisation and expanding transport networks. Its population increased, and with this, the demand for affordable entertainment. The East End became known for its ‘Penny Gaffs’. In Stratford, several licensed theatres soon opened, including the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1884. With the advent of film, the appetite for live performance dwindled, and many theatres were transformed into cinemas. The Theatre Royal did survive, thanks to the efforts of the critically acclaimed Theatre Workshop, which took up residence there in 1953 under the direction of visionary theatre director Joan Littlewood.

From this historical starting point Stokes developed the initial idea for his work, but it was through informal meetings, chance encounters and recommendations from the people of Newham that The Stratford Gaff truly came alive.

The performers & shows:

  • Murray Melvin, actor and member of Theatre Workshop’s original production of ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ performing ‘When this Lousy War is Over’
  • Mr K, beatboxer, ‘freestyling’ an eclectic mix of bass-lines and sounds
  • Larry Barnes, escapologist, magician and music-hall performer, presenting his ‘Bedlam Jacket’ routine
  • The Pearly Kings & Queens, with the Pearly King of Newham, singing ‘The Barrer Boy Song’
  • Kali & Bhanu Kanthagnany dancing to the song ‘Thodaya Mangalam’
  • Charlie Seber, comedian, rapping a surreal account of life as a fledgling owl
  • Sovra Newman, soprano, singing the classic song ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ by J Kenbrovin & J W Kellette, 1919
  • Dizzle Kid, UK music artist ‘Lava u init’, presenting ‘RADIO 1’
  • Ascension Eagles, British champion cheerleaders, presenting a variety of acrobatic stunts
  • Mangal Singh, Bollywood singer, performing the popular song ‘Rail Gaddi’
  • Victoria Elizabeth Day, magician and female impersonator, entertaining with puns and tricks and Aven Romale, a collective of the finest Romany and jazz musicians, providing musical accompaniment

The Stratford Gaff: A Serio-Comick-Bombastick-Operatick Interlude is one of a series of projects commissioned by Art on the Underground for the Jubilee line series: One Thing Leads to Another – Everything is Connected.

Since this project was made we are sorry to announce that Larry Barnes has passed away. A wonderful performer, escapologist and Pearly King of Thornton Heath, he will be greatly missed by all.

Download the free Project Notes that accompany Jubilee line series

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Visiting Information

Artworks for this project are not currently available to visit. The stations where they were / will be installed are listed below.


  • I commute through Stratford 3 days a week, using the DLR and so I walk past this exhibition. If I have just missed a train and have another 8 minutes to wait for the next one, I walk back and watch the screens. I’ve probably seen the whole thing several times, although possibly not in sequence, but I have enjoyed it immensely. It’s particularly great to see Murray Melvin, who has such a longstanding association with Stratford. Thank you for greatly enhancing my 6.30am commute.