Blog: Chris Thorpe

The writer of a modern-day mystery cycle on telling the stories of the north

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The Mysteries started with a conversation about something else entirely. About three years ago I was sitting with Sarah Franckom and Sam Pritchard in Sarah’s office at the Royal Exchange, and she said: “Why don’t you walk to London from here and make a show about it?” So basically this whole thing’s come from a desire to avoid walking 200 miles.

Anyway, we ended up travelling a lot further than that. After we’d managed to turn the conversation away from something that was going to give us chronic blisters, we started to talk about what it means to look at a country from within a country. What it means to look at a small community from a larger one. To try and get a sense of the differences in the way we arrange our lives in villages and cities, and the similarities. Who leaves, who arrives, how we treat those people, what we need, how industry characterises a place or has disappeared from it. Who owns the land. How all of that comes down to what we need from each other, how we can support each other and how those needs might be pulled this way and that by the size or the economics of a place, but at the same time, they’re a fundamental we all share.

We talked about the medieval mystery plays, when the different parts of a community would come together with individual and shared responsibilities to tell the story of the Bible from start to finish. There was something in that – in the movement of the plays around the town or city itself. The Bible story became less important in the end than two other things – the involvement of a community in telling a story to itself, and the poetry through which it did that.

Over the next three years, through global change and the pressures of other work and the rupture of the EU referendum, we decided to identify and visit six communities across the north of England, starting in the smallest and ending in the largest. We spent time in them, meeting local newspaper editors and local MPs, people involved in industry or community projects, but also, more importantly, wandering into pubs and meeting groups and individuals who weren’t expecting us. We asked them what was going on, why they did what they did, why they lived where they did, what they thought the differences were between those places and anywhere else.

From the shepherds playing dominoes in Eskdale to the castle that makes Staindrop feel strangely owned and feudal to outsiders, to the people trying to save Whitby’s tourist information centre as it comes to a reckoning between its famous history and its uncertain future, to the Lithuanians in Boston and the guys in the Conservative Club who had opinions on the Lithuanians but had never really met them, to a church belfry in Stoke-on-Trent to a Manchester that feels its own myth so strongly it sometimes gets in the way – out of those journeys I wrote a play about and for each place. It would probably have been easier and quicker to walk 200 miles, but I’m glad we did this instead.

Over the last few weeks we’ve retraced that journey, this time as a crew of actors, designers and technicians, and director and writer. We’ve re-introduced ourselves to each place, and reconnected with the amazing people and organisations we met, including the activists and artists of B-Arts in Stoke, the Whitby Community Choir, and Dave and Marie, the hill farmers in Eskdale who one January afternoon in 2016 completely reconfigured our ideas about what the landscape of the Lake District, economically, politically, psychologically, was for. We’ve rehearsed in those communities, involved them in the shows, and shown them something that isn’t our impression of them but of what we found particular, fascinating or useful about them as outsiders who were welcomed in. The play exists because we were allowed to see them, connected to each other, in the context of our country as a whole, as part of England, looking at itself.

As I write this, I’m in the Royal Exchange Studio and the cast are running through the Manchester play. I think it’s got to the point where they own it so much, it doesn’t feel to me like I wrote it. That’s a good thing. It’ll be performed for the first time – like all the plays in the cycle – in the place it was written for, in front of the people it’s a reflection of. And it’ll be performed alongside the other five plays our hometown of Manchester sent us out into our country to find. I hope we find the same sense of connection and set the same challenges here at home as we did in all the other places that welcomed us.

The Mysteries is on now until 11 November (

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