Pump up the volume

York theatre director Marcus Romer is behind the city's Cycleo of Songs project
York theatre director Marcus Romer is behind the city's Cycleo of Songs project
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Marcus Romer is not what you’d call a cycling obsessive. He has a bike which he pedals to and from the offices of Pilot Theatre in York, but he’s not one for long distance rides and has never, ever worn Lycra.

However, he knows the route the Grand Départ will take through Cambridge more intimately than most. He’s walked it, he’s cycled it and along with HistoryWorks, which designs installations for museums and galleries, he’s also used it to inspire a brand new art project.

The Dowsing Collective help launch the Cycle of Songs project at St Mary's Church in Cambridge

The Dowsing Collective help launch the Cycle of Songs project at St Mary's Church in Cambridge

Romer hopes Cycle of Songs will stand as a lasting legacy of the Grand Départ long after Froome, Cavendish and the rest of the riders depart for France. So how did the York director get to be at the heart of Cambridge’s Le Tour celebrations?

“While I still work in York, I moved down here with my wife three years ago,” says Romer. “When it was announced that the Grand Départ was coming over here I knew I wanted to be somehow involved in the event and I had an idea for a project where you could wander the streets listening to stories and songs inspired by the history of the place. Quite quickly I realised that there was so much planned for the Yorkshire leg of the Grand Départ that it might work better in Cambridge.”

Romer has form when it comes to these kinds of outdoor events. It was Pilot Theatre, along with Leeds-based Slung Low and York Theatre Royal, which successfully brought the First World War to the streets of York with last year’s production of Blood and Chocolate. Telling the story both of the chocolate factory workers who saw their brothers, fathers and husbands disappear to the front and how the landscape of the city changed forever as its people struggled to reconcile beliefs of conscientious objection against family loyalties, it was a triumph.

“What we learned from Blood and Chocolate is that if you take a performance out onto the streets it can really bring a city alive. York and Cambridge are very similar in that they are both historic cities, but there’s always a danger in these picturesque streets that you end up looking to the past rather than the future. Certainly I think Blood and Chocolate forced people to look at the city in a different way. Something really exciting happens when you take theatre out of traditional venues, it suddenly becomes much more accessible.”

Back in Cambridge and having secured Arts Council Funding for Cycle of Songs, Romer, along with the team at HistoryWorks began collecting largely untold stories of the city’s history inspired by the various places that the Tour will pass on Monday.

“To be honest, we were spoilt for choice,” says Romer. “But among my favourites has to be the story of Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson. Equiano, was a former enslaved African, seaman and merchant who decided that the best way of highlighting the horrors of the trade was to write his autobiography. The book was published in 1789, was a massive success and he and Clarkson, who were closely associated with St John’s College, became two of the most prominent campaigners against the transatlantic slave trade in this country. We were keen to get a mix of stories and so at the other end of the spectrum, there is the tale of Thomas Hobson, who inspired the phrase Hobson’s choice.”

Thomas ran a livery stable outside the gates of St Catherine’s College and when his horses weren’t needed he would rent them out to the students and lecturers. Perhaps unsurprisingly he found that his fastest horses were the most popular, so to prevent exhaustion he established a strict rotation system meaning customers could not take their pick of the horses, but could only hire the next one in line. It was his take it or leave it policy that became known as Hobson’s choice.

Once the nine stories had been chosen, they were given to a group of poets, writers and musicians, including children’s novelist and poet Michael Rosen, Horrible Histories composer Dave Cohen and spoken word artist Hollie McNish. Their challenge was to help devise nine new songs which form a Cycle of Songs trail through the city.

“There are really two sides to the project,” says Romer. “We’ve designed an app so people can download the songs and stories and listen to them through their phone. That’s really important, because they will be there forever and can be accessed by anyone, anywhere in the world. However, right from the start we were keen to involve the wider community as much as possible.”

It was another lesson he learned from Blood and Chocolate which was performed by a large community cast, with volunteers also manning every department behind the scenes.

“We have sent the songs out to the city’s choirs and today hundreds of singers will officially launch the app with a live performance. You can feel the momentum building. We’ll all be watching the Tour as it passes through Yorkshire, but once it has we will be ready to take the baton here in Cambridge.”

■ To download the songs and stories go to www.cycleofsongs.com