Narrowboat’s wide reach

Mikron artistic director Marianne McNamara says its boat Tyseley has kept the theatre company’s ambitions afloat for 50 years – and could have another 50 in it

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One morning in the early 1970s, London-based jobbing actor Mike Lucas was shaving when he had a eureka moment. He wanted to tour professional, high-quality theatre to people and places that didn’t have it and, having spent many hours enjoying the atmosphere of waterside pubs, he realised that travelling by canal would give his company a way to reach audiences and venues that may be too “out of the way” for regular touring companies.

Based in the village of Marsden, at the foot of the Yorkshire Pennines, Mikron Theatre Company was born and this year it celebrates its 50th anniversary. Over five decades the company has performed 66 new plays by travelling 34,000 hours by river and over 545,000 by road to over 436,000 people at venues including allotments, apiaries, lifeboat stations, youth hostels, dry docks, deaf clubs and, more recently, a naturist campsite with a naked audience.

The milestone is being marked with two touring shows: the world premiere of Lindsay Rodden’s new play Red Sky at Night – about the nation’s obsession with the weather – and a revival of the company’s successful 2015 production of Raising Agents, about the Women’s Institute.

“We still stand true to the principles of theatre anywhere for everyone, by canal, river and road, 50 years later,” says artistic director Marianne McNamara. “It’s important for us that our audiences feel comfortable and relaxed when they watch our plays and we find that we recruit new ‘Mikronites’ by performing in new venues every year. We regularly hear audience members say I don’t go to the theatre but I go to Mikron plays.”

Making theatre accessible has become a hot topic in recent years but in 1972 Mikron’s view – besides operating from a canal boat – was radical.

“We have always endeavoured to be ‘accessible’ but what that means really does depend on the decade we’re in. Central government has altered the focus so much and therefore the arts funding landscape has shifted over time too.

“We have many modern interpretations of accessible at Mikron, some of which have been around forever. We aim for 50 per cent of our shows to be pay what you feel, we choose locations by their lack of local theatre offering and choose subject matters that tell the stories of the ordinary folk behind the big issues.

“We’ve always been radical, when required, with a small ‘r’. Fifty years ago Mikron was pioneering, in a theatrical sense, but also in terms of the canal network. It wasn’t like it is now back in 1972. The ‘cut’ [canal] was much harder work to navigate and needed hours more boating time a week.”

Above (L-R): founder Mike Lucas, his son Sam and wife Sarah, with actors Mark Steeves, Ruth Tansey and David Brett aboard Tyseley

Mikron’s narrowboat, Tyseley, is older still, at 86 years, and has earned her right to be on the National Historic Ships Register. She acts as the theatre company’s home and transport in the summer months (not a floating venue as some initially presume). And while she has proven reliable, navigating her doesn’t come without its practical challenges.

Among them, McNamara lists: recruiting actors who like the idea of touring by narrowboat; booking venues boating distance apart (“it takes two weeks from Market Harborough to London”); designing and making sets that will fit in the restrictive storage areas on the boat; working out how soon you need to empty the portable loo; ensuring you have enough water (“you don’t get a brew or shower if you run out”); having enough knowledge of an old diesel engine to be able to keep her running all season; and being at the mercy of the aged canal network.

“We were stuck for nearly a month last year and had to use the van. The weather also plays its part. We are always at the mercy of that.”

And despite her endurance, there are things that stop Tyseley in her tracks.

“She has a very deep draft and can catch on things on the bottom of the canal. We’ve pulled out shopping trolleys, motorbikes, crash barriers and tyres – the list is endless.” But the challenges are all worth it, McNamara says, and she is often humbled by the kindness and generosity of the communities they visit.

“Yes, we are a theatre company that tours plays but we are also about connections with people, stories and communities. A night at Mikron is a chance for communities to come together and enjoy the play together. This felt so much more special after lockdown.”

Last year, following an outdoor show of Atlanta Forever, at Tolson Museum in Huddersfield, Mikron received a message from its BSL interpreter for the show.

“She had spoken to the daughter of a deaf audience member who was in tears after talking to her dad not long after he attended the show. He had been poorly during Covid – isolated and fed up with lockdown.

“He told his daughter that for the afternoon at Tolson Museum he felt like he could laugh with his deaf laugh, talk in his deaf voice, make noises and be happy and feel content again. He immediately booked to see our other show and asked her to find more theatre for him to go to. She said that Mikron got her dad back and gave him spark again. That made me proud.”

If looked after, McNamara says, Tyseley will still be carrying cast and crew along Britain’s canal network in 50 years time.

“I’d hope Mikron will be doing what we’ve always done – it really is that simple. It’s worked for the first 50 years.”

Rising Agents is touring from 8 April, visiting Huddersfield, Overton, Halifax, Holmfirth, Bingley, Winsford, Leeds and Salford. Red Sky at Night opens on 14 May in Huddersfield, then heads for Barnsley, Sheffield, Guiseley, York, Shardlow and Derby. Both shows then tour until 22 Oct. (mikron.org.uk/tour_dates) 

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