Between 3-6 April fourteen companies came together in the small Northumberland town of Alnwick to present and debate examples of the work they tour, mostly to rural settings. Timothy Ramsden reports.
Further what? Well, not all theatre receives the same amount of publicity, and for this reason alone it was sensible of eight small-scale touring companies specialising in touring rural areas – one-night stands in village halls, schools etc. – to come together for a spring weekend under the title Pride of Place.
They’ve been doing so every couple of years, in various parts of England, with this sixth “celebration of rural touring theatre” being hosted by Northumberland Theatre Company (NTC) in their home-town of Alnwick.
Half the originating octet of groups brought a show this year, with the programme stretching to over a dozen productions thanks to new groups, a couple of children’s shows and three invitees from outside Britain.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER.
This was my first Pride of Place, though I’ve seen several of the companies in their natural habitat, playing to their intended audiences. It was only on my 10th and final show in two days I had the sense of a genuine audience, and that was for the Fats Waller musical Ain’t Misbehaving on Saturday night at Alnwick Playhouse. There were real theatre things – bells ringing, a bar, and the sense of people who’d come to see a show, rather than those in the biz.
Elsewhere, audiences were hardly typical; the two children’s shows, for example, had hardly any children watching them. The Playhouse apart (but not its downstairs Studio), the venues offered problems to anyone not on the front couple of rows. The development of physical theatre means actors can spend a lot of time on, or near, the floor, and when the floor isn’t adequately raised and the auditorium’s flat, the idea of ‘seeing a show’ takes on a problematic sense.
Upstix is more than just performances, however. There were ‘Cultural Provocations’ by visiting speakers – I heard Contact Theatre’s John E McGrath from Manchester give a pointed talk on the relationship between performance and audience. The programme ended with companies considering future events. And there were three open discussion sessions lead by playwright Ann Coburn, director and voice-coach Jacquie Crago, plus writer-critic Peter Mortimer.
These critical discussions raised such points as how much it matters if transposing a locally-directed production to a different society loses some of the piece’s focus and point. Or the relation between performer and technology, with speakers mostly preferring the former. This, though, could be a generation matter, for it’s young people who’re more tuned to multi-track sensations. Similarly, the call for one of the children’s pieces to have been pure storytelling without visual add-ones seems more the response of a mature observer than of a group of, say. 10-year olds used to visual sophistication in communications.
Or, maybe not. The important thing is, the event provided an opportunity to consider and reflect on such points.
PLAYS ARE THE THING.
Most truly rural among the shows is Eastern Angles’ Cuckoo Teapot, reviewed earlier in its run, in Suffolk. Like much of Angles’ work it considers a little-known aspect of peoples’ past lives in East Anglia, incidentally explaining the origin of the phrase “gone for a Burton” in the seasonal migration of workers from Norfolk and Suffolk to work in the breweries of Burton-on-Trent.
Host company NTC take a different line in Sylvia Cullen’s The Legend of Lola Montez. A young Irishwoman, Eliza Gilbert, longing to know the father she only remembered cuddling her as a baby and at odds with a mother she could not please, reinvented herself as Spanish dancer Lola Montez. This new sensation took Europe and Bavarian King Ludwig, by storm across the 19th-century’s middle decades.
Gillian Hambleton’s production, set on a huge bed ( Michelle Huitson’s set apparently also suggesting a ship, though not much from my seat), revels in the theatrical opportunities provided by parallels between celebrity obsession then and now. At the start, end and in-between the cast read modern glossies and tabloids with Lola-headlines inserted.
She’s seen with Franz Liszt, in green gloves, protecting his pianist’s hands. Lisztomania was a public phenomenon, and his playing could be too much for the pianos of the day, something that might be seen as an early version of guitar-smashing rock bands.
But he was also a supreme technician and a significant composer for the instrument. Which leaves the question of how good a dancer Lola was. Was this a triumph of personality over art, or did she have an extraordinary skill that enabled her to leap from the prison of her earlier life? The play seems to suggest both at different points.
The quick action and surface satire is mixed with a deeper, more still sense of Eliza’s inner emptiness. Beneath the brilliant career and commanding manner lie fear and loss, her mind repeatedly conjuring images of her mother or father – until the truth is revealed via hints from grandma.
These contrasting elements, almost two parallel plays, are synthesised through Hambleton’s fine-tuned production and the mix of bravura and timidity in Claire Barrett’s Lola, suitably contrasted by the dismissive insolence of Joanna Nevin as her mother
OFF THE BEATEN NARRATIVE TRACK.
Eastern Angles and NTC have been on the go-around for many years. Foremost among younger companies, focused on visual styles, were the four masked-actors of Strangeface Theatre, playing company member Russell Dean’s The Last Resort.
It’s a folk-like story, with a wandering soldier, a devil and an offer to a walled-town which encloses civic corruption resembling Gogol’s Government Inspector. Strangeface sustain the story and the masked humour and satire, with music providing a lift in the second part, where the visual performance alone might start loosing its comic, and highly-skilled, grip. Though it’s unclear how this company specifically relates to rural touring, they’re certainly worth a look. And there’s no reason their tale’s urban setting shouldn’t entertain outside city walls.
For all their comic detail and skill, Strangeface know they need to have a story and get on with it. The problem with Hampshire-based Proteus Theatre’s one-man version of The Elephant Man is that it spends too much time on preliminaries, with a Victorian showman entertaining the audience more hugely than the script will do.
There is a point to this; the much-deformed John Merrick, the ‘elephant man’, was cared for by Dr Treves but also exploited as a showbiz freak also in his time. But it’s a tricksy start to a play that has to use tricks to set Merrick off from the Victorian world, and it only comes alive in certain moments: Merrick’s agony trying to carry out a simple task in a hostile society, or the moments his voice and physique lose their grotesque qualities, as we see how he sees himself – ironically, such moments are often associated with theatre.
Lisle Turner’s The Idiot Colony is the initial piece from Reading’s RedCapeTheatre, directed by mime and movement veteran Andrew Robertson. It’s a cute move by a new company to test themselves with an experienced director and it pays off in a compelling piece about the three ‘inmates’ of a mental asylum in the mid-20th century. Amid this century of progress and science Britain was still confusing the moral judgement of society with mental incapacity and locking away, often life-long, young single mothers without the family support to keep pregnancies secret and take care of the child.
It’s partly owing to the way the company uncovered the story that hairdressing became a motif, but the slow, deliberate, and cooperative, action of combing each other’s tresses provides its own counterweight to the regulated and unsympathetic institutional lives the three women live.
Material derived from the experiences of women who underwent all this, with the detailed, focused humanity of performers Claire Coache, Cassie Friend and Sabina Nethercliff and Robertson’s clear, economic direction, emphasises the individuals within the system.
In contrast is Sharpwire with Johnny’s Midnight Goggles. If Idiot Colony is about stripping means so that every gesture takes on significance, this parallel-world fantasy builds upon one man and his amplified ‘cello. The music, interplaying with the narrated action throughout, is by Pete M Wyer, and it’s all performed, from behind the ‘cello by Matthew Sharp – hence the company name.
Sharp narrates, plays and sings well, creating a layer-on-layer some found overdone (indicative of a Dogme-like anti-technology movement among audiences?) but which I found compelling – maybe because I normally resist such fantasy stories and found comfort in the range of aural stimuli. The question in Upstix context, is how much there’s an audience (yet) for this in rural touring.
General approval for Spike Theatre’s Gin & Tonic & Passing Trains, an hour-long solo taken from Dickens about a drunken railway-signalman. Ramesh Meyyappan holds the attention with particularly strong, if occasionally enigmatic mime, and a fine edge of comedy. There were suggestions afterwards that some of the more enigmatic, repeated, gestures might come from sign language.
It was one of the performances in the non-theatrical Town/Market Hall that led to problems of sightlines. If Upstix continues (this was to be debated the day after the final performances), more care to such basic audience comforts might be considered, along with a standardised programme – at present it’s left to each company to decide what, if anything, they’ll bring along to give away or sell.
I didn’t manage to catch Cartoon de Salvo touring with their nightly improvised Hard-Hearted Hannah and Other Stories, nor, unfortunately, either of the young people’s pieces. Both Cleveland’s CTC Theatre, here with a revised version of their Odyssey (for 8+), and AJTC Theatre, with Wedding Story (for 5-8s) are significant, experienced creators of theatre for the young.
Three companies from overseas were invited to bring an international dimension to Alnwick. In Pablo Ariel’s Neighbours Galilee Multicultural Theatre offered Jewish actor Ariel and Arabian musician Wassim Bishara in a piece that brought some striking images – Ariel trapped, as it were, by his own history, and a range of fine sounds from Bishara. If the dramatic impact somewhat underwhelmed, it lacked in England the sheer force of the two from across a divide that’s clearly more politically than humanly impassable.
Theatre Newfoundland Labrador’s Stars in the Sky Morning (not to be confused with a similarly-titled play by Russian Alexander Galin) dates from the 1970s and is based on stories and experiences collected by writer Rhonda Payne from young women in coastal Newfoundland. There’s an attractive period feel to the work, which is finely performed.
If Stars is the kind of work that reflects a rural community back to itself, giving the vivid quality that life turned into art can have, it’s hardly surprising that in a very different location the work takes on different tinges. Details that are natural can be missed or stand-out with undue significance in another place or time.
But maybe not when there’s a direct link between story and performer. As a third apex to a triangle of styles from abroad, the visual-musical Galilee and storytelling script from Canada were complemented by Open Circle from Lithuania. The name describes the company, the staging form and the piece itself. Audiences sit in circles behind the open circle of performers, in their neutral clothing.
One starts. Another take over. Then another. What they describe, largely (and admirably) in English, with passages in Lithuanian recalling their foreign quality, but without setting them apart, nor obscuring each story’s flow are stories from their childhood and youth. The company are 2006 graduates from the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre.
There’s a cohesion that comes from not just working, but having studied together, with director Aidas Giniotis. Stories can be characterful, funny or, occasionally surprisingly personal about family members. Some of the material is undoubtedly prepared, in more or less detail, while some changes nightly. Performers choose when to take over the narrative and begin a new story.
The impact’s quite startling; the question has to be how long such an ensemble can keep its instinctive cohesion, and how much, if at all, the method admits of replacements if company members leave. Meanwhile, there’s a freshness in the direct telling of experience that effectively hides the actor’s craft in shaping and delivering it all.
BUT NOT LEAST
It’s easy to assume rural audiences mean rural subject matter. Yet while Eastern Angles, for example, explores the identity of its region through aspects of its past, Oxfordshire Touring Theatre Company ended Upstix’s performance schedule with a rousing rendition of the Fats Waller Tribute Ain’t Misbehavin’ (co-produced with Oxford’s Pegasus Theatre).
This, as said above, was the one show that felt like a public performance rather than belonging to a Festival. Of course, you are far more likely to find theatregoers in a Playhouse on a Saturday night than in a fit-up hall on a weekday afternoon. And Fats Waller is a saleable name. Still, it’s a reminder who theatre’s for and Brendan Murray’s farewell production as OTTC’s artistic director is an accomplished affair.
Where does this leave rural touring? Should it continue with old certainties? Or learn new tricks? What anyway is a rural audience – and is there any such single ‘thing’ in the age of second homes, long-distance commuting and the homogenising impact of Hollywood, TV and the Internet?
And what is a ‘village’ audience? Listening to the accents in some of the performances I’ve visited around the country, often in idyllic-looking rural retreats well off anything like even a modest B-road, I’ve wondered how representative the audience is of the local population. Is this for the whole village, or is there the same sort of social apartheid that’s found in many theatres?
Anyway, should companies think in terms of ‘rural’ and ‘urban? How important is the subject matter of their work and what is the responsibility – if any – to introduce audiences without easy contact to major centres to new styles? Last Resort, Johnny’s Midnight Goggles and Idiot Colony are notable examples of the widened theatrical language of recent years – but how many of the companies performing these shows see rural touring as anything distinct within a programme of arts centres and festival visits?
An event like Upstix is, at best, a chance to reflect amid the business of commissioning, rehearsing, fundraising and scheduling – not to mention nightly touring. To learn from others’ work too, though it is to some extent in a false atmosphere, with the possible exception of the host company, performing on its own territory. And even for them, the audience is likely to differ from the rest of a tour.
Input of provocative ideas and critical discussion for those who wanted it (a healthy number of participants, it seemed) are gains. In the end though, each road is a lonely road and a different road. These are companies that are their own brand and have built their own trust with the village hall committees, schools and so forth that repeatedly hire them. Should there coming together be about new directions, or celebrating differences? With luck, it will be a means of challenging complacency without threatening identity.