A few years ago Mrs Chrisparkle and I went on a walk about Northampton entitled Town My Town, where a group of us, led by the R&D’s Storyteller Jo Blake Cave, encountered historical townspeople and learned about the area’s hidden past by means of a very clever narrative and the subtle introduction of additional characters as we walked around. I neglected to blog it at the time, which I regret now, because it was a very fine example of how you can take theatre outdoors and literally walk around with it. I shall never forget the shock when the man Jo sat next to on the church bench suddenly started to address us out of the blue. A veritable coup de theatre!
So, naturally, I wondered if Story Hunt would be more of the same – and indeed if any of the content in Town My Town would be repeated. It sounds a bit obvious just to say that they were “similar but different”, but in fact that’s just what they were. We wandered round the town, treading some paths less frequently trod – indeed we discovered two expanses of green in the town centre that we’d never stumbled upon before, during almost six years of living here – and heard some fascinating stories from the town’s history and about its notable inhabitants, and with some intriguing conjecture about the future too. Unlike Town My Town, there were no surprise meetings with people like a wild John Clare, the ubiquitous girl sitting in a Subway café or the avuncular barman at The Bantam pub. Instead there was greater interactivity between us the inquisitive locals, and our host, guide and storyteller Daniel Bye.
Any crossover in content between Story Hunt and Town My Town would be accidental, as the stories had been collected by Daniel and his director/partner in crime Sarah Punshon a few weeks previously, when they had set up a stall in the Market Square and asked passers-by to give their recollections of recent history and to relate any major incidents or stories of notable characters in the town’s past that they knew about. Daniel and Sarah went away and did further research, and came up with this unique collection of reminiscences. Even so, there were some elements that made both shows – the fire that swept through the town in 1675, the poet John Clare, and the wartime aircraft that ended up in Gold Street. But they’re all fascinating anyway, and the presentation was completely different, so it was good to be reminded of these people and events.
We met Daniel in the theatre as he strode over to meet our little group for the 5.30pm slot on Sunday – the last, in fact, of the scheduled twelve town walks. Daniel is an instantly likeable chap with a spring in his step and a boundless enthusiasm for his subject, and a voice as big as his personality. With his red trousers, blue trilby and colourful Icelandic cardy he’d stand out in any crowd – perfect credentials for someone who’s going to lead you through some busy streets. If in doubt – follow the hat. Within a few minutes of meeting him, he had already got our imaginations working and we were back in the 1950s, as the Derngate bus station was about to be demolished; and back in the 1920s too, wishing a determined wannabe beau ask out a young lady for the third time – this time with success. That would be typical of the little personal touches we would encounter all over town.
In many of the scenes we got personally involved as characters, which helped us to get closer to the action. I was to be Mr Graham, co-creator of a rather unsuccessful hot air balloon that came to a somewhat dismal end in the Market Square; and Mr Fowler, a political rival to Charles Bradlaugh at the (I believe) 1874 General Election. Mrs C became famous local MP Margaret Bondfield, elected in 1923 and the first ever woman Cabinet member. Naturally I was very proud of her; she was very modest at her success. I think we all took turns to be someone famous from the town at some point. As a result, you strike up conversations with your fellow walkers, so that, unlike a traditional theatrical play experience, where you sit down quietly, absorbing what happens on stage and not breathing a word until the interval, here you’re encouraged to respond and participate, exchange views with strangers and make joint discoveries as you wander around.
Playing with time is another method by which this entertainment took on a life of its own. We would stand at one location and within a few minutes would be transported maybe as far back as the fourteenth century, or to the Elizabethan or Victorian era, then right back to today and perhaps into the future too, as we considered the future for our imaginary eight year old girl companion, Sarah, as she made her way through the town, and her life, and considered her position in respect to the past; a very thoughtful, personal and yet tangential way of looking at our environment.
Daniel’s narrative style is very expressive and entertaining. He’s a bit like that very rare beast – a history teacher to whom you can relate. When he tells a story that involves personal tragedy, you feel that tragedy yourself; as when we tried to get under the skin of the man who, with his wife and son were plunged into water to prove whether or not they were witches – if they drowned, they were innocent, if they survived they were guilty. It was straight out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, except that Daniel didn’t make it funny. He made it horrific; a very eerie and creepy tale that ice-cubed its way up my spine. This man survived the drowning, as he supposed, by praying hard to be saved and to be given a purpose in life by God. His family also survived the drowning, but they just confessed to a feeling of fear and horror when they were submerged; and therefore he concluded that his wife and son were indeed guilty of witchcraft because they didn’t pray. Earlier, outside the courtroom, we had heard another personal story, the tale of Elizabeth Pinckard, found guilty of the murder of her mother-in-law, despite the valiant efforts of one Dr Mash to prevent her being hanged by his somewhat incredible suggestions that the mother-in-law died by her own hand. It was presented in quite a light-hearted way, yet you were left to ponder the motivation of the good doctor for his whimsical notions.
In many of these scenarios, Daniel would take you to the edge of the story ending and then leave you dangling to draw your own conclusions. Then before you realise it, with his words hanging in the air, he’s moved on to the next location and you’re left trying to catch up with his waving hat before you lose sight of him. This really kept the whole thing moving and dynamic. It felt like an outdoors promenade theatrical performance – always a good thing in my book. And when it ends, and you eventually return to the theatre, and everyone says their goodbyes and disperses back out in different directions into the streets from which you’ve just arrived, it’s like a tidal wave of local awareness has come to a head at the theatre doors and then just slowly dissipates back into the environment.
An extremely enjoyable experience, and it’s great that the R&D continue to support smaller, more informal activities such as this as part of its remit. An excellent way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and if a Story Hunt comes your way, don’t hesitate to get on board!