On busy, earthy Commercial Street in Hackney, Toynbee Hall is only a mile or so from the Olympic Park. On a day when the press is reporting a healthy resurgence of boxing we’re in the heart of the East End's fight club territory. De Coubertin came here in 1887 en route to Rugby School, Henley Regatta and his meeting with William Penny Brookes at Much Wenlock. He was searching for the way to inspire a generation of young people whose poor health, behaviour and educational standards concerned him.
Tonight I'm watching the Cardboard Citizens perform in the same venue.
For the last decade or so the Cardboard Citizens have been creating theatre with and for homeless people. If the Toynbee Hall feels a long way from the National Theatre or the RSC, it still feels more like the London Palladium compared with other dates on their tour. Most of the 40 venues for Cardboard Citizens are hostels and day centres for young people who have nowhere to call home. The actors also know a thing or two about life on the street.
The stories they tell have a level of painful authenticity that makes those of us going home to central heating, feather duvets and microwaves cringe and squirm. The ‘forum theatre’ technique means that the audience helps to frame the drama by taking the real life stories into new directions. It is clear that many of those in tonight’s house at Toynbee Hall are equally expert in the consequences of drug abuse, domestic violence and the anarchic and scary life of sleeping rough.
After the production ends I meet up with some of the Cardboard Citizens team and discover that they, too, are inspired by London 2012. Indeed, like a growing number of east London artists, performers and creators, they’re hoping to create a strand of work for the Cultural Olympiad and to build a lasting legacy from the Games on their doorstep. Cultural Olympiad
De Coubertin’s time at Toynbee Hall and on the rest of his visit to the UK left him convinced of the need for sport, art and education to work together in a single inspirational movement. If de Coubertin had returned this evening we could have excused him for being depressed to find yet more generations of young people facing such a tough start in life. I'd guess, however, he would have been as impressed by watching the Olympic Park emerge in Stratford as to see groups like the Cardboard Citizens drawing new inspiration from what he was creating in exactly the same place over a century ago.