Writer: Maeve Larkin
Director: Marianne McNamara
Composer: Kieran Buckeridge
Musical Director: Rebekah Hughes
Designer: Kate Morton
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Mikron Theatre Company’s intentions, after 46 years on the road, remain at the same time wonderfully simple and boldly ambitious. You take two key elements in British life (fish and chips, say, the WI or canals), commission plays about them and tours Spring to Autumn, largely by narrowboat, with a team of four actor/musicians, around allotments, village halls, arts centres and the like. This year the subjects are the Youth Hostel Association and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution which means Mikron has added 12 youth hostels and nine lifeboat stations to its list of venues.
Mikron plays tend to have a basic plot on which to hang plenty of comedy, silly or satirical, a chunk of history, some discussion of the issues surrounding the subject and any number of clever and sometimes rowdy songs. Here the main plot accounts for the few clunky or laborious moments in a highly entertaining and informative evening. A stereotypical business magnate (James McLean) despatches Guy, his hapless underling (Craig Anderson), to put a crumbling, but historic, hostel out of business so he can buy and develop the property. Tiffany, the hostel manager (Claire-Marie Seddon), shares a family devotion to the YHA – her father died of a broken heart soon after the closure of the hostel where he was warden – and she is helped by Connie (Rose McPhilemy), a veteran backpacker and, also, incidentally, a good fairy, the Spirit of the YHA.
Guy “going native” and the ultimate triumph of good are completely and satisfyingly predictable. Less predictable are the delights that elbow their way into this simple narrative. Maeve Larkin, in the best Mikron tradition, has done her research and finds dramatically effective ways to put it across. What is going on when McPhilemy suddenly dons a Nazi arm-band? A bit of surprising Youth Hostel history: immediately after the First World War Richard Schirrmann founded the movement in Germany and in the 1930s he was removed from his post. Larkin and Marianne McNamara bring this to life with an acute interrogation and a brief re-creation of the Christmas truce in the trenches which affected Schirrmann’s thinking.
One of the strengths of the play is that, despite seeing the YHA as decidedly A Good Thing, Larkin has her characters discuss the changes of recent years in a way that shows sympathy for the old days when managers were called wardens, sleeping bags were the norm and bars were unknown. Incidentally, York YHA itself, with its comfortable bar and restaurant, makes a pretty strong case for modernisation.
Above all, though, the play is fun. The four performers take multi-tasking to the ultimate, switching characters, voices and costumes, singing a cappella admirably when required and supplying excellent instrumental accompaniment to Kieran Buckeridge’s nicely varied songs. Rebekah Hughes’ musical direction is equally varied, helped by the huge range of instruments the cast can offer: accordion, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, euphonium and trombone in addition to the hikers’ standby, the guitar. And, just for a change, the comic send-up of competitive hikers, “Wainwright Appreciation Society”, gets a home-made backing of ukuleles and kazoos.
In a production that is going to set up in many a field Kate Morton’s designs are more informative than decorative. Hats and woollies change characters and the stage is full of ambiguously thought-provoking road signs: “CHANGED PRIORITIES AHEAD”, “THE END OF THE ROAD”, etc.
Touring nationwide | Image: Peter Boyd