They have been entertaining communities up and down England for decades with their quirky, yet topical lighthearted plays.
But Examiner journalist CHLOE GLOVER found that’s only part of the reason they have gained such a reputation who took to London’s canal waterways to meet the barge-based acting troupe from Marsden whose captaining skills need to be as robust as their ones on stage.
A life jacket is not top of most packing lists when preparing to meet a travelling theatre group, especially when travelling to London.
Yet it could have come in useful when I met Marsden-based Mikron Theatre Company in the heart of London – not on land but on the narrowboat that has been their home for the last 37 years.
A bell rings out the instant I step onto the barge to welcome me on board which I find moored in Kings Cross’s Grand Union Canal.
“It feels like coming home”, says the theatre’s director, Marianne Mcnamara, who has helped the four-strong acting crew turned sailors master a tight parallel park outside London’s Canal Museum where they will perform their show – a venue that feels a million miles away from the more obvious place to find theatre in the capital, the West End.
Yet it is one of the most mainstream venues of the group’s England-wide tour, who have been tootling up and down the country’s waterways every summer since 1975 when the company’s founder, Mike Lucas, came up with the novel way to bring theatre to those who usually rarely get to see it.
More than 150 actors have swapped life on dry land to spend one third of a year on deck where every year they deliver two movable shows to over 70 pubs, allotments and yacht clubs throughout rural middle England and the south.
They only travel at around 4mph on the boat called Tyseley – and at 71.8ft she’s so big she can’t fit on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal.
Built 78 years ago, it is the latest left field incarnation for Tyseley, who originally used to transport Guinness and house a floating restaurant but has become a sort of A-list celebrity of the canal world since her theatrical makeover.
“She’s a real character”, adds Marianne, who spent several seasons as one of the intrepid actors but became so enamoured with the boat she says she could not bear to leave.
“Working on her is a labour of love and a belief in an ethos – it’s not like being involved in a theatre company where the actors turn up to the venue, do the show and then go home.”
This is proven by the dedication of the actors who use Tyseley as their home and transport inbetween shows and must learn how to steer and take care of her during the whole tour.
Marianne added: “We hold our auditions like every other company but then, when we make our shortlists. We have what we call the ‘20 minute putting off’ phone call, where we lay bare the not so glamorous reality of living and working on a canal boat to make sure people know what they’re signing themselves up to.
“We’ve got to make sure we have the right people because in the past we have had a few actors who have struggled with some aspects of the lifestyle. They can’t just get in the car and go home after a show, so I guess it’s a job for a young person or a free spirit.
“One thing’s for certain, they never forget their time here.”
The actors have the tricky task of not crashing into the canal bank and the less popular task of stripping off into underwear to pull out weeds from the filters.
Between the four of them they must also take it in turns to cook, construct and pack away the set each night and act as their own accountants, merchandisers and publicists.
Mikron actress Jill Myers said: “Acting is definitely one of the easiest jobs, in a way.
“We can get up at 7am, drive for seven hours, moor up, cook a meal, set up the set, get ready and then perform in the evening.
“It’s easier now that we have a team back in Marsden. Before, the tour manager would take a large bag of coins to the nearest phone box and book the venues for the next week, but it’s great fun.
“It’s just not a normal contract, that’s for sure.”
And at only just over 2m wide, it is not an acting job for anyone who values their personal space.
Jill and two other cast members, Esther-Grace Button and John Holt-Roberts, share the front part of the boat, while Nick Coutu-Langmead, who is also this year’s tour manager and is back for his third year in a row on board, has the back section of the boat to himself.
John opens up the sofa, or rather, the surprising Tardis, which not only doubles up as his bed but houses some set pieces used to help them stage their two current plays, Till the Cows Come Home and Troupers.
“Some people romanticise life on a travelling boat, but little do they know”, says John, grinning.
Esther, who spent some time on Tyseley when she was younger with her parents – who are just some of the willing volunteers who help relocate the boat during the casts short breaks and at the end of the season – said: “You just get on with living in such close quarters. It quickly teaches you to be thoughtful of others and that there’s no point in trying to keep any secrets.
“We’ve become really close through it, to the extent I think that it confuses some of our audience members. One man at one of our earlier shows asked if we were all married.”
With no TV and barely enough electricity to power a set of hair straighteners, they have to be more inventive with their relaxation time.
Nick, who has also realised the hazard of living on a boat after dropping his phone into the water, said: “If we tell you that most of our performances are in pubs, that can give you an idea of what we get up to.”
Tyseley and her Mikron team will be well-looked after by the communities who live along the canals themselves, and who, over the years, have grown to await Mikron’s yearly arrival with excitement.
Marianne said: “Tyseley is a part of the community and everyone comes to expect her. We don’t just bring a performance, we put on an event that goes right into the heart of the canal boating neighbourhoods – one which tackles contemporary issues but in a light-hearted way which also attracts people who may not normally go to the theatre.
“We know a couple who have even named their child Tyseley and we get hundreds of donations from others, including a couple who were getting married and asked for guests to donate money to Mikron and her.
Esther added: “We never have to do our own washing because people who live along the route offer to do it for us.”
Demand to see Tyseley and the Mikron travelling shows has reached such levels that the group are planning a somewhat controversial expansion.
Marianne revealed: “There are so many places that we have been asked to tour that aren’t on a canal route that we’re deciding how to make Tyseley mark two, which this time be on wheels.
“We’re working with a company in Huddersfield to work out if we can create a live-in van, possibly made out of horse boxes, which we will paint in the castles and roses style.
“This way we’ll be able to tour three shows at a time both on land and water and keep Tyseley’s spirit alive.”
That night’s performance was to a sold-out crowd who crammed into the upstairs room of the museum alongside a full-sized replica of a canal boat and a fetching London waterways map and proves Mikron have certainly created a successful niche for themselves.
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