Hike through history

A theatre company that travels by boat is swapping the cabin for bunks in its latest play exploring youth hostels

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From allotments to pubs, festivals to front rooms and fish and chip shops, theatre company Mikron have toured unusual venues since 1972, travelling on their historic narrowboat Tyseley from their base in Marsden, West Yorkshire.

“People don’t expect to see professional theatre in non-theatre venues but that is exactly what we do and we’re not interested in being something other than that, or playing bigger venues,” says artistic director Marianne McNamara. “We know we can show up at any venue and make it work.”

Their shows are dedicated, as writer Maeve Larkin notes, to “celebrating, commemorating and giving an overview to uniquely British institutions that may be a bit unsung”. Recent shows such as Raising Agents and Don’t Shoot The Messenger, for instance, have offered an enlightening and entertaining perspective on such superficially unexciting subjects as the Women’s Institute and the Post Office.

Larkin’s Best Foot Forward, touring from the end of March, celebrates the Youth Hostel Association (YHA). She points out it’s an oft-derided institution despite its nine decades of dedication to helping especially young people of limited means to a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside, particularly by providing hostels or other simple accommodation for them in their travels.

“My parents were big walkers, so all our childhood holidays were spent in youth hostels.”

The show uses a mix of history, humour and music to tell the story of YHA warden Connie as she tries to save a beautiful hostel under threat from insensitive developers determined to turn it into a golf club.

Larkin says she grew up with the YHA. “My parents were big walkers, so all our childhood holidays were spent in youth hostels, while my friends were going to Butlins or places like that. I have mixed feelings about that because we did stay in some amazing places but we hostelled ‘properly’, walking all day from hostel to hostel with our luggage on our back, then having to make our own beds and all of that. That might be the image people still have of the YHA but they’ve certainly moved with the times.

“I was writing a script for The Theatre By The Lake in Keswick and going up for a meeting with the director, so I stayed in a youth hostel and this British institution was now so very cool, hip and international. The play I was meant to be writing went away for various reasons, and I remembered how intrigued I’d been at the youth hostel. The way in which, despite all the economic changes over the years, they’ve managed to hold on to that founding principle of accommodation for all. How a movement manages to evolve while still holding true to its founding principle of accommodation for all seemed something worth picking up.”

At that point, Larkin pitched the idea to Mikron’s Marianne McNamara, with whom she’d worked before.

“My only impression of youth hostelling had been the memory of a very cold bed in Ludlow as a teenager,” she laughs. “But then Maeve started to point out the similarities with Mikron, which is also about shared experiences. We haven’t been around as long as them, but like them where we started and where we are now are two very different places. So there are those parallels but it’s also just a great subject for Mikron to jump into and have fun with, delving into history and telling the stories of people behind big events. “

Photo: Mikron Theatre company actors Craig Anderson, James McLean, Rose McPhilemy and Claire-Marie Seddon. Best Foot Forward tours throughout March and April at venues including the YHA York until October

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