Trouble at Mill - the theatre company bringing storytelling, music and comedy to Farsley

As that valuable commodity, optimism, slowly creeps back into our vocabulary, it feels fitting this week to virtually visit a company that seems to be powered by it.
Choque Hosein, Howard Bradley and Dick Bonham of Trouble at Mill in the Old Woollen venue at Sunny Bank Mills. (Picture: Tony Johnson).Choque Hosein, Howard Bradley and Dick Bonham of Trouble at Mill in the Old Woollen venue at Sunny Bank Mills. (Picture: Tony Johnson).
Choque Hosein, Howard Bradley and Dick Bonham of Trouble at Mill in the Old Woollen venue at Sunny Bank Mills. (Picture: Tony Johnson).

Trouble at Mill is the company behind the Farsley venue The Constitutional and, remarkably, behind a soon to be opened new venue. That is correct: an arts company is preparing to come out of lockdown not just surviving, but raring to go with a brand new venue.

The new space, The Old Woollen, will be housed in Sunny Bank Mills and has already programmed music, comedy and theatre for the coming year.

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“Starting these venues wasn’t originally the plan, but while things have been closed down, we’ve been working to open up another space. We’re excited to get open,” says Dick Bonham.

The Constitutional, in Farsley. (Tony Johnson).The Constitutional, in Farsley. (Tony Johnson).
The Constitutional, in Farsley. (Tony Johnson).

The theatre producer, who previously worked at Leeds Carriageworks before setting up his own company Little Mighty, is one of three people who make up Trouble at Mill.

The other two members, Mercury-nominated musician and record producer Choque Hosein, and award-winning arts producer Howard Bradley, are, like Bonham, residents of Farsley, the outwardly quiet suburb between Leeds and Bradford.

Bonham says: “The three of us all had careers that took us to various different parts of the country, but as creative people living in the same part of town, we all found each other and Trouble at Mill started when the owners of Sunny Bank Mills took a gamble on us and gave us an abandoned room to put on a monthly pop-up night.

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“We used to put on theatre, comedy, a band: we built up quite a following, so when the space at The Constitutional came along we were ready to make the leap and start a full-time venue.”

It is an impressive place and Bonham in particular is embedded in the Yorkshire cultural scene, which meant he could mine his contacts to bring some surprising work to the little suburban venue.

“We always enjoy punching above our weight, and people often say ‘I can’t believe this is happening in Farsley’. There can be a way of talking about some local arts centres that makes them sound a bit small, a bit worthy, and somehow a bit inferior to city centre venues. We never want that – great things can happen anywhere,” says Bonham.

And they did. The three men behind the venue pulled in some great acts, from comedian Arthur Smith to Red Ladder theatre company. And then the pandemic hit.

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“We were open for 18 months before Covid got in the way, but while things have been closed down, we’ve been working with Sunny Bank Mills again to open The Old Woollen in another of their buildings.

“It’s very much a joint venture, and their investment and faith in what we’re doing has really made things possible. Both venues are just a short walk away from each other, and with that whole area being redeveloped (there’s some great new bars opening at the mill as well), it’s going to be an exciting place to live and work.”

What’s so great about being able to bring this profile of The Constitutional to this series, is that it pulls together so many of themes that have emerged over the past 13 months.

It has a DIY spirit, it’s performance in unexpected ways and places, and it’s built from the ground up here in Yorkshire.

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“We love putting unexpected things together. I love it when people find something that they just didn’t expect or haven’t encountered before. Hopefully that messes with people’s sense of ‘high’ or ‘low’ art. For example, we’ve put together silly comedy with opera singing and performance poetry and had a great night.”

The ‘Made in Yorkshire’ stamp is also important to the venue.

Bonham says: “Having been involved in lots of touring work, both nationally and internationally, there’s something incredible about being involved in a venue that’s just down the road.

"Rather than feeling like you parachute in, perform, and then disappear again at the end of the night, you really get to know people. And that makes them so much more honest about what they think of what you’re putting on. It’s a brilliant way of getting feedback and hearing what your audience does and doesn’t like.

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“Getting to know people, and seeing regular faces who keep coming back for more – it’s an incredible feeling, and something I don’t want to lose touch with. It’s all about the audience at the end of the day – without their buy in, there’s no point in turning up really.”

Reflecting on the effect of the pandemic, Bonham says: “In some ways I’m sceptical that it will have a positive effect. I think there’s a big problem with class in the arts generally – there’s a glass ceiling for people who don’t look and sound a certain way.

"After Covid a lot of the basic power structures will still be in place, and I don’t see that this will unpick them – if anything I think independent artists and freelancers will have even less say, because there’s going to be less money around. But equally, we can’t sit around waiting for big institutions to come and save us."

“Choque, who I work with, is always saying we should be more Punk Rock about things – which I think is about a DIY spirit, and not waiting to be told you can get on with it. That’s where the most exciting stuff is right now, and hopefully we can be a part of making it happen.”

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It’s happening – in Farsley and the good news is, it’s happening again soon.

Music, comedy and storytelling

Already booked for The Old Woollen are bands such as 90s hit machine Space (October 16) and Sunderland post-punk band The Futureheads (December 4) and Bossa Nova New Wavers Nouvelle Vague (March 13).

Comedians include Gyles Brandreth (October 9) and ‘Grumpy Old Man” Arthur Smith (December 18).

The autumn theatre season at The Constitutional includes Aliki Chapple’s hilarious, fierce 666 Comments (October 7) and candle-lit ghost stories from Robert Lloyd Parry with “Oh Whistle” (October 28).