Imagine a night at the theatre and you might picture red velvet curtains, tip up seating, chandeliers and gilt ornamentation. What you probably don’t think of is barges, bridges and bilge pumps.
But Britain’s canals, once the arteries of the industrial revolution, are now the means by which performance is being taken to the places it wouldn’t usually reach.
“Our founder, Mike Lucas, had a eureka moment when he was thinking ‘How do I get theatre out to people who live in the middle of nowhere? I know, we’ll tour by narrowboat,’” says Marianne McNamara, artistic director of Mikron Theatre, a company established in 1972 that travels the country by canal.
Each summer, four actors and a company manager set off on Mikron’s 82-year-old canal boat, Tyseley, spending three months on the waterways. En route, they perform in pubs, allotments, historic canal buildings and boathouses – pretty much anywhere they can set up a stage. Their current repertoire includes Get Well Soon, a celebration of the NHS, and Revolting Women, marking 100 years of women’s right to vote.
Mikron aren’t alone in bringing drama to the waterways: in fact, Britain’s canals are the unlikely setting for a thriving theatrical microecology. Much-loved waterside venues include the Canal Café in Little Venice, the Hebden Bridge Little Theatre, and the Puppet Barge – a perfectly formed 50-seater theatre afloat on the Grand Union, which ‘rocks very gently if a large boat goes by’. Venture down to the towpath and you may even catch a glimpse of the Circus Boat, complete with rooftop aerialists and trapeze artists.What is so powerful about performance in this setting? “It is a way of drawing people to the canal to hear its stories, to see it in a different way,” Kate Saffin, founder of Alarum Theatre, says. This summer, the company is touring by boat with Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways, a show inspired by the Canals and Rivers Trust’s oral archive, in particular the histories of women who worked on the canals during the Second World War.“We rarely do a show where someone doesn’t come up to tell us about growing up near a canal, or a link to a boating family. It sparks memories,” she tells me. Alarum’s performances often incorporate elements of local history – last night, they included an account of one of the featured women ‘legging’ (propelling the boat with her feet) through a bridge very close to the venue. “It’s great to be able to imagine her there, singing Onward Christian Soldiers,” Saffin says.
Of course, working in this way isn’t without its challenges. “There have been times when we have run aground, got stuck and had to be rescued,” McNamara recalls. Every venue is different, and the performers can never be entirely sure what they’ll be greeted with when they arrive: “The most cramped stage I ever had was in a craft ale pub. I literally had the hearth – they didn’t light the stove as it would have set fire to me!” Saffin says, with a chuckle. On another occasion, “a man leaned back too far in his chair, tipped over and ended up in a mill pond…”
In contexts like this – about as far removed from the ‘black box’ of a conventional performance space as it’s possible to imagine – theatre companies can’t rely on complicated sets or state-of-the-art lighting and sound. “All the design has to flat pack and fit on the narrowboat alongside our living quarters – and it’s got to be waterproof,” McNamara explains. Instead, they make use of live music and exaggerated performances: “the energy of the piece has to be larger-than-life.”
In spite of these constraints, the quality of the plays you’ll catch on your local canal more than matches that of great theatre companies based in more conventional settings. Mikron have recently achieved National Portfolio Organisation status with Arts Council England, recognising them as one of the most important arts organisations in the country, and Alarum Theatre’s production Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways has been nominated as a finalist in the Living Waterways Awards 2018.
Is there any risk of McNamara being tempted back by the bright lights of more traditional theatres on terra firma? “This lifestyle is fantastic. You realise how little you need in life, how wonderful being outside is,” she says. “On a day like today, when you don’t have too far to go, and the sun is shining, you couldn’t be anywhere better.”
It doesn’t sound like she’ll be quitting the life aquatic any time soon.
Five great shows to see on the waterways
Alarum‘s double bill of theatre, poetry and songs, inspired by the young women who worked on the canals in the Second World War.
Performed in traditional 19th-century canal dress, with musical accompaniment on the melodeon, concertina and fiddle, Bonnet and Belt’s new work celebrates the heritage of English canals.
Mikron‘s light-hearted, musical celebration of the NHS, marking its 70th birthday.
Federico Garcia Lorca’s dreamlike, symbolic first play about a cockroach’s love for an injured butterfly, is performed for an adult audience with the Puppet Theatre Barge’s trademark long string marionettes. Track the barge down in Richmond near London this summer.
‘The world’s longest running live comedy show’, staged at this charming pub theatre in the heart of London’s Little Venice, is a rapid response format taking a satirical look at current affairs.
Moving Stage and Peter Boyd