Writers/Performers: Daniel Bye, Boff Whalley
Director: Katharine Williams
ARC Stockton’s These Hills are Ours is difficult to define, unambitious in style, committed in viewpoint, a mix of narration, song, dialogue, both natural and rather awkwardly scripted, and even a touch of Q&A with the audience. Its theme, if you want it almost insultingly simply, is running up mountains, but the meat in the show comes from Man testing himself against Nature and, most significantly, from the achievements of those pioneers who opened up chunks of Britain for the working class and whose work still needs to be used and protected.
To begin at the beginning, Daniel Bye and Boff Whalley sit on wooden chairs, both with standing mikes, Whalley with his guitar. There is a set so rudimentary that its main purpose must be to convince the audience of the “make do and mend” nature of the production: a few wooden posts with some sad-looking strands of barbed wire and a pile of stones that might be a cairn or a hint of a drystone wall. They bumble into a “suppose we might as well start” routine.
So far, so unpromising, then Whalley starts the first of his unfailingly excellent songs. All are on some aspect of mountains/running/open spaces – this one tells of running to the horizon and back – and all combine a folk song aesthetic with attractive, more modern-sounding melodies and direct conversational poetry in the lyrics. Bye, who was born on Teesside, has much to say on the topic of Roseberry Topping: his poetry is more self-conscious, but he speaks vividly of his childhood experiences and how much of the perception (especially distance) changes with adulthood. For Whalley the equivalent hill was Pendle and he counters with a genuinely funny tale of childhood and not climbing Pendle.
They’re a nice duo of narrators, Whalley more relaxed, Bye more polished, but things don’t altogether fit together: too many digressions, perhaps, or maybe the fact that for much of the time only one of them is performing, Bye on a scripted narration (occasionally with gently chording guitar) or Whalley singing without Bye harmonising or joining in the chorus.
Ultimately the evening is structured by two subjects, one historical, one personal, arising from the historical. In 1932 the famous Kinder Scout mass trespass was a landmark in reclaiming the land (or at least some bits of it) for the common people. Then the less well known Winnats Pass trespass was actually even more successful and ultimately led to the establishment of the Pennine Way in 1965.
Bye and Whalley memoralise the events in story and song, then Bye recounts his own tribute to the great men involved. His attempt to run 88 miles in approximately 24 hours, ending at the top of Kinder Scout, was a brave modification of Bye and Whalley’s plan to run it together, scuppered by a broken toe (“going upstairs”, comments Whalley unheroically). Bye’s narrative, punctuated by an alternative view from Whalley in the support campervan and a couple more memorable songs, is dramatic and often gripping, though the occasional lurches into melodrama are not ideal.
Did he make it? Well, we know he didn’t die of hypothermia or perish in a swollen beck, but to find out more you’ll need to catch up with a show that needs to gain some sharpness and lose some 10 of its 85-plus minutes to work as well as it deserves to.