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Tag Archive | "Mike Kenny"

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Guest blog: The people’s theatre stars the people

Posted on 17 August 2013 by A Younger Theatre

Alan LaneA few weeks ago an Indian company called Jana Natya Manch came to visit Slung Low’s home, the HUB. They are this fierce, rather brilliant agit-prop theatre company who were going around the country on a trade union organised tour. They called into our rather tatty, very precious five railway arches in South Leeds to show us one of their pieces and have dinner with us. I rather fell in love with them.

They make theatre on the steps of factories, and places where people work and eat, discussing issues and educating about things that will make an absolute difference to people today, this very moment. They are brave in their theatrical styles (they go toe-to-toe with Delhi traffic without amplification) and with their bodies – one of their members was beaten to death during a performance a few years ago – a type of courage that mercifully we don’t have to contemplate here. So, they are ideal role models for a theatre director hurtling towards middle age and looking for heroes who don’t care what a KPI is. At the HUB they performed in front of their banner, on which the words “The People’s Theatre Stars the People” were written.

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I’ve been thinking about that a lot whilst I’ve been working on Blood and Chocolate, Mike Kenny’s first world war epic about chocolate workers in York. For the past couple of years, ever since there were conferences declaring we were Stronger Together, there has been talk from all sorts of quarters in all sorts of language about how we need to make changes in the face of a Government who often appear to not give a shit, and who look increasingly likely to continue to reduce the amount of money invested in the arts. The theme running through all these declarations – no matter the personal politics of the declarer – has been Make People Care More. Make people care enough to write to their MP, make people care enough to leave you something in their will, or in Slung Low’s slightly banditry way, enough to pay to name your toilet. But make people care. Matter to them. And their caring might be enough to save us from those who think we’re irrelevant.

The different ways in which the sector has responded to this realisation has been inspiring. Apart from the organisations which decided to simply just do what they had always been doing but perhaps a little more cost efficiently – those people are a drag on the ticket and the race is too tight to carry them any longer. The different ways in which we’ve changed tack, upscaled, reorganised is no more than you’d expect from a community that does what we do.

Blood and Chocolate is not an easy project to bring to life. Three organisations with a more different outlook on things you really could not imagine. The HUB is five railway arches where we grow vegetables in discarded bath tubs, which young artists can weed in return for rehearsal space; York Theatre Royal has transformed its garden into a grill cooking burgers to sell to families in the interval of its summer smash hit King Arthur; there are many many differences between the theatre company that works out of a metal box for an office and the organisation that runs the successful tech and arts conference Shift Happens. And yet we begin rehearsals in two weeks and we stand completely united in our collective endeavour. And it was whilst thinking about the Indian company that I realised what that endeavour was; it’s that we all, for this moment together, believe: that The People’s Theatre Stars The People.

Blood and Chocolate

There are many ways that can be done, from You Me Bum Bum Train to the shows of Red Ladder to Chris Goode’s 9 and much much else between. Blood and Chocolate attempts to do all of them at once. To tell the story of the people of a town, have it performed by the people of that town and then perform it slap bang in the middle of that town.

I don’t pretend that we are inventing anything new here. We’ve come full circle, returned to important roots in our search for something that matters. And for me it has been as great a revelation as the visiting Indian company. The company matters – the stars of the people’s theatre are the people. In this instance, 180 volunteers who signed up six months ago to take part in a show that I could not describe to them when they auditioned for it, because we hadn’t finished it yet. Many of them have only traditional forms of theatre by way of context. All of them have given an unbelievable amount of time already just for the training workshops to prepare them for rehearsals.

This collection of volunteers will perform for 21 consecutive performances and bake cakes each week to sell in rehearsals to raise funds for the production budget. There are volunteer costume makers, stage managers, mic runners: the entire project is balanced and built from the care felt by an increasing army of volunteers working tirelessly alongside the creative team. We talk about diversity in theatre all the time, wringing our hands about training and audience expectation: the all shapes and sizes and types that make up the determined company of Blood and Chocolate is a diversity I have never seen before, and I believe may well be the saving of us.

For all the talent of Mike Kenny’s script, for all the investment from Pilot and for all the admiration and awe in which I hold my fellow Slung Low creatives, the real vitality of Blood and Chocolate is that company. The thing that matters in this epic, sprawling mess is them. The star of the people’s theatre. The reason three such disparate organisations have come together is the simple realisation that separately we can’t do it, we can’t achieve what the company demands and deserves – the story of the people, told by the people in the people’s places.

It turns out that it’s not just agit-prop Indian theatre companies who make suitable heroes for theatre directors rapidly hurtling towards middle age. The company of Blood and Chocolate are my heroes and they made me realise that if you want to make a relationship vital it’s good to let those you need speak once in a while.

Alan Lane is Artistic Director of Slung Low. You can follow him on Twitter or visit Slung Low’s website.

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre (AYT) is a platform for young people to express their views on theatre and performance. The site is maintained, edited and published by under 26 year olds who all have a passion for theatre.

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Review: The Railway Children

Posted on 30 June 2011 by Eleanor Turney

There’s a certain irony to missing the start of The Railway Children because your train is delayed, and not an especially funny one. Peter’s desperate watch-checking after the landslide (which was nicely done with a dramatic tower of tumbling boxes) – “The 11.29 hasn’t been by yet! We’ve only got three minutes!” – lost a little of its tension knowing what we all know about British Rail – don’t worry, mate, you’ve got at least 20mins before you need to start panicking…

But this is Oakworth, not Kings Cross, and things happen differently here. In the Railway Children’s idyllic countryside world nothing really awful ever happens (well, nothing Mummy and the Old Gentleman can’t solve, any how), everyone’s “a brick”, and the happy ending is inevitable. Given such a cheesy story to work with, Damian Cruden directs to wring every last drop of emotion from Mike Kenny’s script, laying it on thick but getting away with it because, well, we want Daddy to come home and everything to be alright.

Kenny’s script borrows heavily from both book and film, but it feels right because we want the familiar, slightly saccharine story to unfold, heading inexorably to the famous “Daddy! My daddy!” scene where Bobby (Amy Noble) is reunited with her father (Stephen Beckett) and there is not a dry eye in the house. Well, my 12-year-old companion remained fairly stoic, but I was weeping into my handbag.

The children themselves were done well, although Grace Rowe has a tough job making the rather immature Phyllis likeable. Tim Lewis’s blustering Peter is sweet, and Amy Noble makes a mature and sensible Roberta, with more pluck than she is perhaps gifted in the original story. Blair Plant, sporting a rather wonderful pointy ginger beard, is a moving Schepansky. Marcus Brigstocke is clearing having a great time as the grumbly Mr Perks, complete with thick Yorkshire accent. His gruffness hides a soft heart, and we know three children who will win him round in the end. It’s all predictable enough, but wears its soppiness well.

Special mention must go to Christopher Madin who wrote the beautiful score – strains of Copeland and English pastoral interwoven with brilliant, hummable tunes that never overpower the cast or stray too far across the bounds of sentimentality. Not that a bit of sentimentality is necessarily a bad thing; designer Joanna Scotcher has done a lovely job of making the whole Eurostar terminal space at Waterloo station feel almost cosy. The set and costumes are lovely – there is a real sense of no-expense-spared with the whole production. And then there’s the train. A real, actual live steam train, which runs between the two banks of audience members, puffing and chuntering. It does not disappoint.

Yes, it’s pure, unadulterated schmaltz, but if that’s what you’re going for, then do it boldly, and your audience will go with you. Cruden and his cast tackle the sentimental story with vim and enough dramatic moments to cut through some of the sugar without killing the sweetness. It’s handled with a light touch, and the cast manage not to be outshone by the gleaming train. It’s packed with enough cheese to last you a long time, but this avowed cynic was won over by The Railway Children’s charm, playfulness and sense of fun.

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is the Managing Editor of A Younger Theatre, as well as a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She has written for The Guardian, The Stage, The FT and Ideas Tap, and worked for the Poetry Society and the British Council.

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