DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

All Hands on Deck: A Tale of Two Wrens – Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield

Writer: Vashti Maclachlan

Director: Marianne McNamara

Composer/Lyricist: Kieran Buckeridge

Musical Director: Rebekah Hughes

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

One of Arts Council England’s better decisions was to award Mikron Theatre Company National Portfolio Organisation status which means that funding is secure for at least four years. Though pretty low on glamour, Mikron is a totally individual company, offering an indispensable service, a unique way into theatre.

The Mikron method works like this. Choose two British institutions or historical developments, from the suffragette movement to fish and chips, from lifeboats to the National Health Service. Commission two writers to produce plays on the subjects, plays that are duly respectful while letting the tongue stray into the cheek fairly often, and add a composer of jolly, but meaningful, songs. Find four talented actor-musicians who are prepared to take the wheel of a narrowboat and send them on their way. The Mikron tour of village greens, pubs, allotments, parish halls and cafes takes from April to October, with the middle three months aboard the narrowboat Tyseley on the waterways of the Midlands and South. The atmosphere at most Mikron performances is disarmingly informal, but don’t mistake informality for simplicity – in its laidback way, it’s an ambitious undertaking.

Watching from the balcony of a well-filled theatre is probably not the best way to appreciate a Mikron performance: the informal relationship between cast and audience disappears and a production and set that will be perfect for a gazebo in a beer garden look rather lost on a full-size stage.

Despite these reservations about the premiere performance at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, All Hands on Deck, economically and effectively directed by Marianne McNamara, is well in the Mikron tradition and should tour very successfully. The subject is the Wrens, the Women’s Royal Navy Service, and Vashti Maclachlan has chosen to narrow her focus to one time period (World War II) and two Wrens.

Ginger (Elizabeth Robin), self-confidently full of get up and go and a love of boats and engines, and Lily (Rachel Benson), more timid and cautious, but skilled in Morse code, are devoted friends whose careers in the Wrens separate and come together and overlap. Both in different ways are very successful, but both have problems to endure before the positive ending. Robin and Christopher Arkeston are the two top(pish) brass who narrate the progress of the war and of Ginger and Lily in comically clipped tones. Arkeston is also the most prominent male character – Lily’s friend and colleague Stan, a mixture of good heart and bad jokes – and Joshua Considine is equally good-hearted, if rough-tongued, as Ginger’s petty officer boss. Perhaps a failing of the script is that there is too little exploration of the patronising attitudes the women would have encountered. One brief scene where Lily is constantly leered at, embraced or (very ineffectively) chatted up on the way to delivering an urgent message has a real impact.

Mikron productions are always a matter of ensemble playing and Robin, Benson, Arkeston and Considine switch and change characters and musical instruments as a team. As Musical Director Rebekah Hughes uses existing songs, fine upright versions of Heart of Oak punctuating the performance, and Kieran Buckeridge’s songs receive the stylish performances they deserve: an Andrews Sisters pastiche, a really clever song utilising the rhythm of Morse code (on the model of Barrington Pheloung’s famous Morse theme) and a Music Hall satire on Hitler delivered in his best end-of-pier style by Joshua Considine. Accompaniments are less raucous than in most recent years, mainly based around strings and accordion, but as ingenious as ever.

Touring nationwide | Image: Peter Boyd 

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