Preview: Blood + Chocolate

Richard Smirke talks to Slung Low’s Alan Lane about one of York’s most ambitious theatre projects – based on its famous chocolate maker

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“There is often this idea that theatre is for other people, that it is basically the thing that Julian Fellowes does. I think that’s complete and utter bollocks,” says Alan Lane, the highly impassioned artistic director of Leeds-based drama company Slung Low.

“Theatre is and always has been a fundamentally muscular and, at its best, dangerous thing. We know this because for hundreds of years any time that any bad guys take control the first thing that they do is thump the theatre. So I think it’s a particularly spurious perception that theatre is this rarefied thing and it’s incredibly important that we fight against that. Otherwise Julian Fellowes will win.”

Past ways in which Slung Low have combatted elitist attitudes to theatre include staging plays on a bus (2011’s Original Bearings), in Shipley swimming baths (2012’s Northern Big Board), and all manner of unusual inner-city environments. Its latest production, Blood + Chocolate, is arguably its biggest and most ambitious yet.

Produced in partnership with fellow Yorkshire-based companies Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal, Blood + Chocolate tells the inspiring true life story of the workers and owners of York’s chocolate factories (Rowntree’s, Craven’s and Terry’s) during the First World War.

To do so, organisers have enlisted a cast of 180 professional and community-sourced actors, a 100-strong choir and an additional 500 local volunteers to work behind the scenes as costume makers, photographers and stage hands – all of whom will work together to create a unique sensory experience whereby audience members (wearing headphones relaying actors’ dialogue) are led on an immersive tour through York’s historic streets as the drama unfolds around them.

“Logistically it’s very difficult,” explains a calmly understated Lane. “In the past we’ve done shows with 250 people, set in all sorts of different places. But combining it all with a community cast of 180 and running for 16 nights in York is of a scale that I think no one has really done before.”

“We need to embrace the anarchy,” adds producer Liam Evans-Ford. “That’s what audiences come for. They like the fact that they are watching something unfold that is entirely theirs for the evening and that they are going to help create with us.”

The inspiration for Blood + Chocolate, which is written by Olivier Award-winning playwright Mike Kenny, was the discovery by Pilot Theatre’s Marcus Romer that at Christmas 1914 the Lord Mayor of York sent a chocolate tin, designed and manufactured at the Rowntree’s factory, to every serving soldier from York and the Yorkshire regiment.

Prior to the outbreak of war, roughly 30 per cent of York’s working population, some 20,000 people, toiled in chocolate factories. Today’s workforce is vastly reduced, but Nestlé York (Nestlé acquired Rowntree’s in 1988) is still the city’s largest private employer and York’s history as a major confectionery exporter remains a huge source of local pride, as evidenced by the enthusiasm and dedication of the hundreds of volunteers that bring Blood + Chocolate to life. “We’re telling a specific story about the people of York, staring the people of York, but, of course, these stories are universal,” elaborates Evans-Ford.

“Whether it’s the young sweethearts who never get to live their lives together, or the conscientious objector who stands for what he believes in and is vilified for it, all of these stories translate to everything that is happening now.”

Lane continues: “At one point Mike [Kenny] turned to me during a read through and said: ‘Oh, I didn’t realise that the play might be about Syria?’ As people we are constantly negotiating these questions that surround war and that’s very important.

“If you can do that while also having an adventure around a city then that’s even better.”

Blood + Chocolate runs 3-20 October in York (starting at York Theatre Royal) 

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