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Natasha Tripney: Urban theatres have much to learn from rural touring

Pentabus' Here I Belong on tour. Photo: Richard Stanton
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“We’re going to need more chairs.”  I think this might be touring theatre’s equivalent of a Jaws moment. I’m at Leintwardine Community Centre near Ludlow with rural touring company Pentabus and, due to the efforts of the enterprising local programmer, that night’s performance of Matt Hartley’s Here I Belong has not just sold out but over-sold. No one is turned away though. Pentabus’ ethos is one of welcome.

It’s a fairly obvious thing to say, but a village hall is not a theatre. Most of the audience members will know one another. This place belongs to them and the theatre company is the guest, not the other way round. They know the building’s history; they bring with them their memories of the place. Large multigenerational family groups are common. Pentabus tries not to programme work that precludes this. That’s not too say its work is tame or apolitical, far from it. The company tells stories that speak directly to its audiences, not just reflecting rural life but exploring what it is to live in a village today. Hartley’s play is both set in and inspired by the idea of a village hall as a site of continuity and a place of congregation. It speaks nostalgically of the past, but recognises the inevitability of change and the need for people in these communities to support one another if they are to survive.

That idea of support is written into the way the company works. Everyone chips in. Everybody does their bit. Having taken their bows and spent some time talking to the audience, the actors, Beatrice Curnew and Nathalie Barclay, pull on gloves and start dismantling the set, hefting around the lighting rigging, and reloading the van. I am given some bunting to fold (I do not think artistic director Elizabeth Freestone trusts me with anything more breakable). The sharing of food is a part of this too. Hartley’s play ends with the handing out of cake. Much as I am in favour of cake in all forms, this small act of eating together is another way of connecting people.

It strikes me as I watch the show, in which Curnew ages, movingly and convincingly, by some 60 years, and as I watch the audience watching her, that this model of touring and storytelling, would work well in other contexts.

Producer Jake Orr, and my colleague Mark Shenton, have both recently questioned the necessity of what they see as a raft of new theatres being created in London, but there are many parts of the capital, and many communities within it, that remain underserved. This is particularly true in the suburbs, but it’s also the case in the bit of south London where I live now. There’s a lack of traditional theatres (though one is now in the process of being built). Jamie Eastlake’s Theatre N16 has set up home in the Bedford pub in Balham, but that’s about it. There are, however, spaces – halls, libraries, churches, community centres – that could be put to use: companies coming into the community and sharing stories in places in which people feel comfortable and safe, where they know the rules, where they feel at home.

Some companies are doing this already. Not Too Tame makes accessible, inviting shows designed to engage with people who might otherwise be put off the idea of visiting a theatre – its show, Early Doors, toured UK pubs. A number of companies make work for performance in libraries – Open Book being just one good example. But there remain gaps and cracks that could be filled. Where I live, for instance, there’s a large and established Polish community, going back decades, but while Polish characters often crop up in new writing, it’s not the same thing as having their lives and experiences reflected in a space that is familiar to them. It feels as though there are many lessons that could be learned from the village hall touring model.

Read Natasha Tripney’s review of Here I Belong

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