In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but could not because of the coronavirus lockdown, Lyn Gardner speaks to Marianne McNamara, artistic director of Mikron Theatre, about its tour of Poppy Hollman’s A Dog’s Tale. She also looks at a significant show that opened this week in a previous year
A Dog’s Tale, a canine comedy caper with songs about Crufts that was written by Poppy Hollman, was due to tour with Mikron Theatre – the unique company that tours for some of the year by van but mostly on a vintage narrow boat. The opening dates of the tour would have taken place this week, with the show playing Marsden Mechanics Hall, Snainton Village Hall, Overton Memorial Hall and more than 30 dates planned beyond that.
“We don’t tour traditional venues,” says Marianne McNamara, who joined the company in 2003 and has been its artistic director for the past 11 years. “We are more likely to be found in a pub or an allotment or a fish and chip restaurant than in an arts centre or a theatre. We have an advantage over many theatres in that everywhere we go we are hosted by the community. People come back year after year and generation after generation. We know people’s names and the names of their children and their dogs. One family named their daughter after our narrow boat, which is called Tyseley. So, audiences have a real connection with Mikron and the shows we take to them.”
Who was involved?
The show was to be directed by Rachel Gee, with Rebekah Hughes as composer and musical director and Celia Perkins in charge of design. The actors were Rachel Benson, Thomas Cotran, James McLean and Elizabeth Robin.
How far did they get?
“We never started rehearsing A Dog’s Tale. We always tour two shows, rehearsing and bedding one in before we start on the other. So, we were in the first week of rehearsal for Amanda Whittington’s Atalanta Forever, about pioneering women in football in 1920. We had seen what was coming, but we didn’t realise how bad it would be.
Initially we thought maybe we would lose the spring tour, but both shows would be able to go out later in the summer. When we realised that wasn’t going to happen, we had to spend four solid days on the telephone talking to actors and the hosts of every date on the tour.
It is a moment for Mikron to count our blessings. We are small and caution is in our DNA. We do what we call a ‘Yorkshire budget’ – it is really lean. We are very weather dependent and I think we had budgeted for everything, except Covid-19. If this had happened five years ago, we may not have survived it, but we have reserves, we have amazing supporters, and we are really confident we will celebrate our 50th anniversary [in two years].”
Will the shows be rescheduled?
“Yes, we will do them next year. They are plays that deserve to be seen. Writing for Mikron is a real challenge for playwrights, even really experienced ones. Our audiences often like a play that has some social history in it. We’ve done plays about Butlin’s and plays about bees and beekeeping. But whatever we do, the play has got to work in different settings, whether it’s a village green or a pub. The thing we’re worried about for next year is that so many of our venues are pubs and restaurants and, like theatre, they’ve been badly hit by the lockdown. Some may not survive.”
What is Mikron doing during lockdown?
“We live in a small village. Our office has been used to run the local food bank that has been set up and we’ve been delivering food to the elderly and vulnerable. We’ve also been keeping in touch with the people and communities that we tour to. The response has been so generous and touching. It makes you realise that running Mikron makes us the custodians of something bigger than us.”
For further details, visit: mikron.org.uk
A play that did open this week seven years ago was Chimerica, Lucy Kirkwood’s extraordinarily ambitious and meticulously researched thriller that took its name from a phrase coined by academic Niall Ferguson to describe the mutual interdependence of the US and Chinese economies.
At a time when the coronavirus is creating huge rifts and stand-offs between the 21st century’s two biggest powers, it seems a good time to remember a play that opened at London’s Almeida Theatre on May 28, 2013, in a co-production with Headlong, and ran until July 13, before transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre the following month.
It was directed by Lyndsey Turner and had a brilliant rotating cube design by Es Devlin. It also offered juicy lead roles to Stephen Campbell Moore – as a photojournalist trying to find out what happened to “tank man”, the activist photographed during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre standing alone in front of a line of tanks – and Claudie Blakley as his marketeer girlfriend helping a multinational find opportunities in a China that had gone “from famine to Slimfast in one generation”.
Benedict Wong played Zhang Lin, who lost his wife in the 1989 protests and risks his own freedom by protesting air pollution in China. That certainly strikes a chord now, with reports of Chinese whistle-blowers over the Covid-19 virus facing state opprobrium.
“Chimerica is dizzying in its scope and invention, exhilarating in the potency and intelligence of its ideas, and relentless in its narrative grip,” wrote Sam Marlowe in Metro, one of many cheerleaders for a play that never made it to Broadway, perhaps because, as Howard Sherman suggested, British playwrights’ critiques of American society, politics and international relations are seldom welcomed.
But it did go on to become a much-admired Channel 4 TV series last year. Like Quiz, it reminds us that what begins in the theatre often, eventually, makes great TV.