Going overboard for drama

Life on board the narrow boat with the Mikron Theatre group touring the 'Raising Agents' WI play.
Life on board the narrow boat with the Mikron Theatre group touring the 'Raising Agents' WI play.
  • It’s a theatre company like no other. Nicky Solloway meets the cast (and crew) of Mikron Theatre who tour the country by narrowboat. Pictures by Paula Solloway.
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From the sun-drenched deck of the vintage canal boat, it all looks pretty idyllic. I’ve been invited on board Tyseley, a 78-year-old narrowboat which Mikron Theatre uses to tour the country’s waterways with its quintessentially British plays.

Though based in Marsden, near Huddersfield, the theatre company’s boat is at a riverside inn at Welford, Northamptonshire for the start of their waterways tour. The only theatre company in the world to tour by narrow boat, they will spend three-and-a-half-months on the canal this summer, stopping off at riverside pubs, halls and inns with their two shows, Raising Agents and One of Each.

Life on board the narrow boat with the Mikron Theatre group touring the 'Raising Agents' WI play.'Cast front to back James Mclean, Ellen Chivers, Steve McCourt and Rachel Henley.

Life on board the narrow boat with the Mikron Theatre group touring the 'Raising Agents' WI play.'Cast front to back James Mclean, Ellen Chivers, Steve McCourt and Rachel Henley.

We’re seated around the dining table on deck, chatting and enjoying a lunch of salad, cold meats and quiche. The boat rocks gently to the rhythmic chug of the engine, while a few fields away a couple of lambs bleat and two swans serenely glide past.

It’s not hard to see why a job with Mikron is so highly sought after; 450 people applied for the four actor’s roles this year. Last year there was double that number.

Yet being an actor with Mikron is far from an easy ride. Not only do they have to learn the lines for two different plays, which they will perform at 150 venues this year; they have to play more one-night shows than any other theatre company in the country. And not only do the actors have to learn to steer the 72ft vessel, navigate the waterways, operate the locks and “grease the stern gland” (to avoid taking on water); they also have to cook and clean, unpack and fold away the set and cash-up at the end of the show. It’s a tough call.

“It’s not just about how talented they are,” says artistic director Marianne McNamara. “They really have to get on with each other. It’s glorious today but when it rains it is pretty hard work.”

Life on board the narrow boat with the Mikron Theatre group touring the 'Raising Agents' WI play. Director Marianne McNamara.

Life on board the narrow boat with the Mikron Theatre group touring the 'Raising Agents' WI play. Director Marianne McNamara.

Plus they have to learn to deal with the hecklers.

This one comes completely out of the blue. One minute the swans are looking very picturesque as they paddle across the calm water. The next – like the scene from Fatal Attraction when Glenn Close rises up from her bath – a huge orange beak suddenly rears up and plunges through the open kitchen porthole. There’s a piercing, angry eye and a flash of tongue as the swan lets out a rip-roaring hiss.

We all scream and then fall about laughing. It’s easy to see that above all, a sense of humour is key to surviving life on a canal boat.

The four actor-musicians live aboard the narrowboat for the whole summer and living in such close quarters can be quite a challenge, even though the boat feels surprisingly spacious inside.

Life on board the narrow boat with the Mikron Theatre group touring the 'Raising Agents' WI play. Space is at a premium when you live on a narrowboat

Life on board the narrow boat with the Mikron Theatre group touring the 'Raising Agents' WI play. Space is at a premium when you live on a narrowboat

There are two stoves, a well-equipped kitchen with an oven and a fridge, six beds and a small bathroom.

The company packs their props and costumes into the numerous cupboards and under floor lockers and carry the set on the roof, though no higher than the chimney pot, as the boat has to fit under low-lying bridges.

Ellen Chivers, 27, says she loves it so far. “I like camping and being in small spaces anyway, which is a good job really. It’s lovely.”

She shares the bunk beds with Rachael Henley, also 27. James Mclean, 38, has his own little room with a queen-sized bed and Steve McCourt, 24, sleeps on a pullout in the kitchen.

James is getting ready for the sell-out performance of Raising Agents that evening in Market Harborough. He has a wet shave and applies his make up in the tiny cabin, then dresses in a pair of female trousers and a colourful blouse to look like a member of the Women’s Institute.

As he gets ready, he confides that the main challenge is ‘cabin fever’.

“We are all so glad to be working but we are on top of each other,” he says. “It’s fine but you have to learn to make it work.”

Marianne takes it in turns to skipper the boat with husband, Pete Toon, the producer. The skipper sleeps in cosy quarters at the back, next to the engine room. In days gone by a whole family would sleep in the tiny cabin with the rest of the boat’s hull used to carry grain and Guinness up and down the waterways.

“Tyseley is so very unique, she’s a bit like driving a vintage car,” says Marianne, adding that with a cruising speed of just four miles an hour, the crew need to ensure they leave enough time to navigate the locks to arrive at their next venue on time.

Canals are quite shallow in places, and now and again, the boat gets stuck, so another key skill as an actor and crew member is to learn to ‘pole off’. Tyseley is also quite wide at 7ft across and she struggles to fit into some of the narrower canals. Her waistline – as happens to the best of us – has widened with age.

“She was meant to be the first boat to go on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal 13 years ago,” recalls Marianne. “When they restored the Huddersfield Canal they did it very exactly and since Tyseley’s waistline has spread over the years, she’s a little bit wider in the middle. We got her in the lock at Uppermill and she got stuck, so we had to be craned out.”

With her bright red and green paint and traditional rose and castle illustrations, she cuts a distinctive figure on the river and is well known in the boating community. Passersby will often stop and chat with the crew.

“We are the custodians of the boat,” says Marianne. “You really feel like you’re treading on hallowed ground as people hold the company in such high regard.”

Mikron specialises in taking the theatre out to the people, performing at unconventional venues, including beer gardens, halls and allotments.

Their show, Raising Agents, was written to celebrate 100 years of the Women’s Institute, and they are performing it at various WI headquarters along the route. In fact it has been such a hit, more venues have had to be laid on as word has spread. Their other show this year, One of Each, is a tale about fish and chips being performed at various chip shops en route.

“We always commission new plays specifically for Mikron and we tend to take subject matters that are quintessentially British of the people behind these historical events or movements,” says Marianne.

In 2012 their play, Losing the Plot was performed at various allotments across the country and they now re-visit around 20 garden plots every year with their new shows for a ready audience.

Touring by boat is also cheap and ethical. “It’s about reducing our carbon footprint as much as anything,” says Marianne. “Tyseley is really cheap and green. We use two tanks of diesel for the whole summer. It is a slow way to get there – it could be an hour in the car and eight hours by boat, but it’s a wonderful way of seeing the country and also a very green way of touring.

“We had a 40th birthday party a few years ago and actors from the last 40 years came to the party or sent telegrams or emails and they all said this job was the most unique job they’d ever done and was defining in their lives. It’s something they’ll never ever forget.”

As the boat sways comfortingly with the current and dog walkers and families stop for a chat with the crew, it’s not hard to see the appeal of life afloat.

“It frees you up and makes you realize how little you need in life,” Marianne says. “There’s such a lovely community on the waterways. It’s quite refreshing.”

Which may explain why more than one former Mikron actor now lives permanently on a canal boat.

• For full details of Mikron’s summer tour dates go to www.mikron.org.uk