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Pentabus: 40 years of touring theatre to village halls

Beatrice Curnew in Pentabus' Here I Belong. Photo: Richard Stanton
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How do you create theatre in village halls? “We tell people we’re based on a farm, but I don’t think they believe us,” says Elizabeth Freestone, artistic director of Pentabus, as we drive down a track and past cattle sheds towards the 19th-century school building on the outskirts of Ludlow that is the company’s base.

Pentabus, which was founded in 1974, originally set out to tour plays around the five counties of the West Midlands, hence the name: Pent-a-bus. These days, the company tours new writing all over the UK (and uses vans rather than buses). But its core mission remains the same: to connect with rural audiences by taking work to the villages in which they live. It’s a different kind of contract. A village hall or a community centre is not a theatre. Its users have a different kind of relationship with the space – a sense of ownership. A village hall is a container of memories. Most of the audience will know each other. When you bring work here, it’s like you’re bringing it into their home.

The play the company is currently touring, Matt Hartley’s Here I Belong, uses the village hall as both its setting and its inspiration. Covering a period of 60 years, from the 1950s to the present day, it looks at changes in village life over that time, economic and social, as experienced by one woman.

It’s a play about community and continuity, the writing is radical in a very gentle way. It is also Freestone’s final production as artistic director before she starts working as a freelance director. She describes the play as “a love letter to village life”. She adds: “And it touches on the big thing that affects everyone in a rural community, which is: how long can you stick it out? If your children have left and you’ve stayed behind, or your village is slightly dying because the pub has closed and the shop has closed – how long can you stay?”

Rural touring comes with a particular set of creative challenges. Each space has a different capacity and different facilities.

Pentabus’ headquarters
Pentabus’ headquarters

Leintwardine Community Centre is more modern than most. When we arrive, performers Beatrice Curnew and Nathalie Barclay are hanging up bunting and counting chairs. How many tickets have been sold? Seventy at the last count, which is 10 more than they were expecting.

Local promoters select the shows they want to programme and then sell tickets. Much of this is literally word-of-mouth. Pentabus supplies posters and fliers, but the local promoter will be on the phone selling the shows – and shouldering the risk. “If you’re only programming one play a year and people don’t like it, that’s a big deal in a place like this,” says Freestone.

Malcolm Turner, the promoter at Leintwardine Community Centre, is clearly a dab hand. He ends up selling 75 tickets. Spare chairs are quickly found.

As technical stage manager Sam Eccles – who has been with the company in one way or another since his teens – goes through lighting cues, Curnew and Barclay get a feel for the space, thinking about exits and entrances, the logistics involved in moving a large, old-fashioned pram through the village hall doors, and finding a suitable place to change between scenes (preferably without flashing passersby). The whole process is very hands-on. Everyone pulls their weight, carrying props, laying out cabling, reloading the van at the end of the night. (“It’s like playing Tetris,” says Eccles, as he attempts it.)

Freestone is shifting boxes into the corridor, while playwright Tim Foley, Pentabus’ current Channel 4 writer-in-residence, is busy with the gaffer tape. Freestone pauses and looks at me. “Do you need a job?” she asks, and I’m soon unstacking chairs, too.

Pentabus arrives at the village hall during the afternoon before its evening show. It takes about three hours to assess the space and complete the get-in. The venue usually provides a meal that the company shares before curtain up. Malcolm sets up a little table in the corner and dishes up dinner. Buying food in some of the places they visit isn’t always easy, so this small act is important. At the end of the night, everything needs to be packed up again. Then, tomorrow, the whole process will start over, in Chelmarsh Parish Hall in Shropshire.

While this kind of touring isn’t for everyone, a lot of people find the specific challenges creatively energising: Here I Belong has been designed by Ellan Parry and lit by Johanna Towne, former head of lighting at the Royal Court.

“There are people who understand why this work is important and they want to be part of it,” says Freestone. “They like the creative challenge it presents. While some people might shy away from it, others say: ‘What an amazing puzzle.’ ”

This applies to actors, too. “Part of the job is talking to the audience afterwards and hanging out with them. It’s a very different kind of challenge.”

Curnew and Barclay clearly thrive on the intimacy of the spaces, and the connection it allows them between performer and audience. “This is what theatre used to be,” says Curnew, gloves on, shifting furniture. Twenty minutes after the end of the performance, in which she convincingly ages 60 years, she’ll be back in her gloves, folding up tables and hauling lighting rigging around. Rural touring does wonders for your upper-body strength.

This particular production, which included a three-week rehearsal and seven weeks of touring, costs the company in the region of £40,000. It will play 27 venues in all, including four libraries in Lancashire and a number of venues in Cornwall, as part of Carn to Cove, the rural touring scheme for Cornwall.

That £40,000 is split into origination and touring costs, explains Freestone. “The origination costs include commissioning, design, marketing, which for something like this was £20,000, and then the costs of being on the road for seven weeks.” Here I Belong will bring in about £15,000 earned income. This is split between core funding and money from trusts and foundations, including the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. “We want to take our work to areas that don’t have access to live art, where there isn’t much in the way of engagement, and we use our Esmee Fairbairn grant to allow us to do so.”

Pentabus targets its tours. “The play we did about fracking [Sian Owen’s This Land] we deliberately toured to Lancashire and Northern Ireland, whereas with this play, which is about ageing in rural communities, we’re taking that to Cornwall and other areas where that’s an issue.”

Speaking later to Foley, the playwright-in-residence with the gaffer tape I met earlier, he tells me: “Pentabus has smashed all preconceptions I had of rural touring. I don’t think I was expecting such socially driven work. The theatre itself might be surrounded by sheep, but this is a company that’s far from being meek and woolly. There’s a real hunger in village halls across the regions for challenging and exciting plays, and Pentabus is prompting artists and audiences alike to think about big, national questions.”

“We would never want to make a clunky, issue-based play about the trials of village life,” says Freestone. “The audience will just nod and say: ‘Well, yes, we’ve lived that.’ ”

She firmly believes that there are some rural plays that are suitable for urban audiences, and some rural plays for rural audiences only. “There are some aspects of village life that people in cities don’t really know about.” She cites Simon Longman’s play Milked, a comedy about the experience of being out of work in the countryside, as an example of the former, while Here I Belong is an example of the latter.

“We all know that it’s tough getting older in a rural community when your kids have left because there are no jobs – but we need to get together and talk about it, to care for each other and look after each other.” Watching the audience’s faces over the course of the night is in itself a moving experience. You can see the impact, both of the writing and the performances, but also of watching this story unfold in this room, in this place they know, in this place where they belong.

Here I Belong is touring until November 27

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