Middle Child - the radical Hull-based theatre company still going strong

“Half-formed theatre company seeks other half.”

The Canary and the Crow. (Picture: Richard Davenport).

The words of a Time Out advert taken out in 1972 set off the most unexpected and extraordinary chain reaction. With those words, Mike Bradwell arguably turned a Yorkshire harbour city into a radical, cultural beacon. He found another half and Hull Truck Theatre Company was born.

A legacy of that punk spirit remains and is perfectly embodied in the company where my lockdown profiles arrive today: Middle Child.

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A witty name for a theatre company is more than a little inspired by Bradwell’s example.

Middle’s Child’s 2019 production of The Little Mermaid. (Picture: Richard Davenport).

“The company was formed a year after we all graduated from Hull University. We’d all gone off and done various different things – from drama school to theatre and non-theatre work. I was at LAMDA at the time and we had a day with Mike Bradwell which really resonated with me,” says the company’s artistic director Paul Smith.

“He’d just written an article where he encouraged young theatre makers to ‘find a play, squat a building, steal a van’ and ‘take theatre outside the establishment’. It articulated a lot of things I’d been feeling at the time so, inspired by this, I went straight to the pub and sketched out a manifesto for what a theatre company in Hull might look like. I sent it out to some of the people I loved working with at uni who I knew felt similarly about theatre.”

Bradwell came to Hull in the early 1970s to essentially hide away from enquiring eyes. His message resonated with Smith and, it transpired, several others.

“When I sent out my manifesto, eight people, Ellen Brammar, Marc Graham, Emma Bright, Edward Cole, James Townsend, Matthew May, Mungo Arney and Elisa Nader got back in touch to ask when we were moving.

“We quickly got to work with the original members informing and improving what I’d written and Middle Child was born. We soon added our ninth member, another Hull Uni grad called Sophie Clay. We were fuelled by a belief that what we were building had real value and could make a real difference.”

It’s fair to say the company has achieved its aim to make a difference, carrying the name of Hull to the capital with a brand of theatre that is unique.

Smith says: “We are, and always have been, obsessed with two things: new audiences and new voices. We exist to create a good night out that reaches beyond the usual theatre crowd, proving that live theatre is there to be made and watched by everyone. Over the years we’ve become associated with making ‘gig theatre’ which, to us, is about celebrating the liveness at the heart of theatre, mixing live music and new writing to ensure people know they’re in for a good time with a strong message and great story.”

There is a strong political element to the company, but it does have a mission to provide a banging good night out for its audience. It is almost as obsessed with its Yorkshire roots, good news given that it has been turning heads in London theatre circles for a good few years now.

“We’re based in Hull and, frankly, couldn’t exist anywhere else. It’s our home, our inspiration and the beating heart of everything we do. The city is full of incredible independent businesses and artists as well as stories crying out to be told. There’s a rich history in Hull of progressive and radical theatre and we love shouting about Hull at every chance we get,” says Smith.

So what about the politics? A good night out is at the heart of the company, but its politics runs through it like Blackpool through a stick of rock.

“The name originally came from a quote in the movie Fight Club which appealed at the time because we felt that our generation truly were the ‘middle children of history’. When I first came up with the manifesto it was around the time of the coalition government and things felt really uncertain for the arts and we felt we had a lot to say politically,” says Smith.

“The first show we took to Edinburgh was called 25: 13 Red, 12 Blue, a title which alluded to the thirteen years we’d lived under a Labour government and the twelve years we’d lived under a Conservative government. It was rough and raw but full of the complex mix of fear, anger and sadness we felt at the time. The show wasn’t perfect but the politics of ‘things need to change’ have informed everything we’ve done since.”

In 2013 the company staged Amanda Whittington’s adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. “It took place in a Hull warehouse space called FRUIT, which quickly became our spiritual home. The show was the first time we made anything that resembled gig theatre – a noisy swagger of a show complete with 50s fancy dress, limbo dancing and a 50s-style reworking of modern indie hits.”

In 2017 the spotlight hit Hull as it was named the UK City of Culture. Middle Child made a three-part epic called All We Ever Wanted Was Everything. After opening at a Hull nightclub, it went on to sell out at the Edinburgh Festival and transferred to the Bush Theatre in London. Tours, of course, have been cancelled this year.

“Our biggest hope is that after all this theatre will be fairer, kinder, and better supported, while our biggest fear is that we will fall back to the problems of inequality and exclusivity we’ve seen again and again over the years with less space and less opportunity for new voices. It’s a scary time but in general we do feel hopeful.”

Supporters’ scheme and online panto

Middle Child has recently launched a supporters’ scheme called Middle Child Mates. The scheme is pay what you can and will help the company to continue creating award-winning theatre and supporting artists in Hull and beyond.

Next week the company will also announce the details of its reworked digital version of the Christmas panto, a show which has become a significant highlight of the company’s year. The panto be free to watch on a streaming platform.

For more details about the supporters’ scheme and how to view the panto visit www.middlechildtheatre.co.uk