“Actors don’t often get roles like this. It’s very special.”

“Don’t be getting my double chin from that angle,” admonishes one of the Batley Girls as I gatecrash a photo line-up.

There’s a real buzz tonight at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre (LBT) tonight for the premiere of The Ruck, the much-anticipated story of the Batley Bulldogs Under 16s Girls Rugby tour of Australia.

In the theatre bar with a pint in his hand and a grin on his face team coach Craig Taylor is in no doubt about the potential for this Creative Scene-commissioned collaboration between art and sport.

“It’s great for the girls,” he shouts above the racket his former players are now making on the next table, “but more importantly, it’ll be great for the sport. Hopefully it will inspire other girls to take up rugby.”

The front of house staff do their best to get everyone seated for kick off and, from where I sit in the circle, I can see Craig and the girls getting comfortable in the third row of the stalls, waving at others around the auditorium.

Within minutes of the lights fading, we’re in fits of laughter. And the tissues come out as the characters reveal themselves and the story develops of the team’s preparations for the first ever Australian tour by a girls’ rugby team.

It is, of course, a play of two halves and as the bar staff tackle the interval assault, I ask parents for a reaction. “It’s really good, isn’t it? Really good,” says Casey’s mum as she’s handed a drink, “they’ve got the way Craig would speak to the girls off to a T. We’re really enjoying it.”

With only four actors playing the whole team, writer Kevin Fegan has skilfully combined real and imagined storylines inspired, in part at least, by his time sitting with the girls on the back of the team coach.

One of the girls tells me she recognises the troubled character from the first half who self harms. “To see that played out on stage, I was in absolute tears,” she says, “because I realise now how far I’ve come from that time in my life. It’s brilliant.”

With everyone back in their seats, we’re transported to the Gold Coast for the second half and the whole of the Lawrence Batley Theatre is again in uproar as the team’s challenges on and off the field are played out. The Batley Girls even join in with the chants they’ve made their own.

Later LBT’s Rose Condo introduces a post-show discussion and, to accompanying whoops and hollers, gives a shout out to the Batley Girls as Kevin and Craig clamber belatedly on stage.

“Remember, whatever happened in Oz, stays in Oz,” jokes Kevin, “apart from this play of course.”

Actor Sophie Mercer who plays the young Asian newcomer, speaks on behalf of her collagues: “Actors don’t get roles like this very often. Mostly we play fictional characters so it’s very special when we do something based on true life.

“To be given a story like this where you girls have done something, made footprints that are bigger than your own, it’s been a real privilege.

“And after we came to meet you at the ground and seeing your team bond, then that helped us bond as actors. That was you guys… you are really inspirational.”

More tissues.

Rose takes questions from the audience. “I’m Batley born and bred,” says one woman, “and my father was involved with Batley Rugby Club until the day he died. “He would have been proud to have seen this tonight.

“I go to lots of Creative Scene events,” she continues, “and I think they are fantastic at what they do, bringing everyone from the community along with them. It’s been an unbelievable night.”

An unbelievable night indeed.

“I’ve never been to a theatre before,” says one of the Batley Girls to one of the mums, as they head through the foyer. “I wasn’t expecting it to be half as good as this.”

“Me neither.”

“It’s a story about how they proved something to themselves”

“The idea is we start off as fans and then we change into our kit,” says Joyce. “Is there time for you to take your tops off?”

I’m in the attic space at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, snapping away during this morning’s rehearsals for The Ruck which premieres on Friday.

Written by Kevin Fegan and commissioned by Creative Scene, it’s a play about the Batley Bulldogs Girls’ Under 16s team tour to Australia, the first ever tour by a girls’ rugby league team.

I’ve been following the evolution of this play on this blog since the girls and their families flew out from Manchester Airport in November 2015. I can’t wait to see how their adventures translate onto this stage this Friday.

Director Joyce Branagh and the eight-strong cast are having a good laugh trying to work out a passing sequence where the Batley Girls triumph down under for the first time.

“What if I run round this way?” asks one of the girls.

“Great,” says Joyce. “And now let’s try all that again to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.”

This whole time the assistant director is recording new stage directions and cues on her copy of the script. Creative Scene stalwart Rebecca Foster – who runs the West Yorkshire Drama Academy – has been invited to work with, and learn from, Joyce.

“Her direction is so imaginative and creative,” Rebecca tells me at the tea break. “As a young director I wouldn’t know where to begin in staging rugby match sequences with just four actors, but Joyce does this fantastic job of making it exciting and fun to watch.

“As you’ve seen she creates an environment where all the cast contribute their own ideas. It becomes a real collaboration and there’s an amazing team spirit in rehearsals.

“Kevin writes very intricately. Every line has got so much to it. He’s really keen to get across the rhythm of his piece and so I’ve been working with the actors to make sure they’ve been hitting the right beats.”

“And what about accents,” I ask, “are any of the actors from Yorkshire?”

“Most of them are from the North,” she explains, “but I’m the only one from Batley. And Batley does have its own fantastic accent. So I’ve been briefing them on how to say ‘Tesco’ properly!”

While Rebecca gets a cuppa, I turn my recorder on Joyce. “How important is a woman director for this play?” I ask.

“As someone who continually bangs on about there not being enough good parts for women in theatre I was very excited to get this role as a female director but, you know, I think it would be fine to have a male director too.

“It’s not just a female story about girls. It’s about their coach and their families and, as all plays are, about miscommunication and its resolution.”

“And, apart from the ball rolling to the back of the stage after an incomplete pass, what would you say has been your biggest challenge?” I ask.

“It’s a wonderfully dynamic play,” says Joyce, “with so many different styles going on. Some bits are kitchen sink drama, some daft comedy, some stylised movement with singing and dancing in there too. Trying to get all those elements feel like they’re the same play and they flow from scene to scene, that’s been the challenge.”

Before the mugs are back in the sink I ask actor Josie Cerise about their trip to the Mount Pleasant Stadium when some of the Batley Girls gave the cast a spot of coaching during a publicity photoshoot.

“We threw the ball around with them,” recalls Josie. “I like to think we picked it up quite quickly. We just have to look as if we know what we’re doing!

“But what really struck me was how passionate the young women are about this play. It’s a story about how they proved something to themselves and I feel a responsibility for telling that story with real truth and authenticity.”

“Okay, right,” calls Joyce. “Let’s get back to it.”

The Ruck is at Lawrence Batley Theatre this Friday and Saturday (tickets here) and then tours from the 18-22 September to the Theatre Royal Wakefield, Cast in Doncaster and finally The Civic, Barnsley.


Seeing Batley in a new light: backwards

“Good afternoon everybody and welcome to our life class. It’s great to see so many new faces.”

It’s Sunday afternoon and our ‘tutor’ kicks off the last performance of IOU’s Rear View for Batley Festival. “Let’s start off with something really simple,” he says, as the model sits rooted to her chair. “Let’s start off with the best stick figure you’ve ever drawn.”

As I make my way around the room, carefully weaving in and out of easels, I review everyone’s efforts, some more confident than others. “You’ve done this before,” I whisper to one woman.

“Not for a long time,” she laughs.

After some advice about shading, the instructor quietly slips out of the room as the model comes ‘alive’. She tells us what she thinks about as she poses, the surrounding artists scrutinising every inch of her now ageing body.

Pencils down, we follow performance poet Cecilia Knapp out towards the cut-up bus. Twelve-year old Elyas is here with his parents. “Did you persuade them to come?” I ask after I’ve introduced myself, “or was it the other way round?”

“My mum actually persuaded me,” admits Elyas.

“Well done mum,” I say, “you’ll have to tell me afterwards what you thought of it.” Elyas is one of the first on the travelling auditorium and bags the back seat.

“Hello and welcome to Rear View,” says IOU’s executive director Joanne Wain. “In front of you is a set of headphones. There’s a small dial in the headrest in front of you to adjust the volume. If you’d like to put your headphones on now, we can get started.”

I ride shotgun inside the cab with David Wheeler, the theatre company’s artistic director. This is the eleventh circuit in the last three days. He must be getting to know Batley well by now. “So what sort of reaction have you been getting?” I ask him.

“I think local people have enjoyed seeing their town in a new light,” he says. “And the audiences have built up steadily over the weekend. As more people have seen us travelling round, they’ve been intrigued and have come to see what it’s all about.”

We park up on a side street where Cecilia is sitting, waiting, as if she’s been magically transported from the life class. From a distance, and without the necessary headphones, it’s like watching the TV with the sound turned down.

Next she is outside the Croaky Frog Café and I position myself down the street to get a view of the poncho-clad punters. All are totally immersed, eyes fixed on our protagonist.

After we’ve visited Fox’s and parked up next to Batley Cemetery, we make our way back and I get to chat to Dave the driver who, with an engineering background and a career in the bus trade, has been a consultant for the project since the beginning.

“Didn’t you think it was a bit bonkers when you first heard about the cut-up bus?”

“Yes,” he replies, far too quickly.

“And have they proved you wrong?”

“They have. But I’m glad they have. It’s the first time this has ever been tried in this country, maybe in the world. It’s a strange idea but it’s really worked.”

Dave reverses back into the starting position next to Batley Library and, before the audience disembarks, Cecilia reappears for the final time to take a bow.

“I thought it would be different,” says Elyas who I think was expecting a scenic tour of Batley. “I didn’t imagine we’d hear a woman telling us all about her life. I was surprised. I’m pleased we came.”

“The hardest part was sitting still and not speaking,” jokes Batley Festival volunteer Donna as she fills out a feedback form. “It was very Batley. I’ve worked in those places. And some of the things she referred to like her father’s sore hands, that really rung true for me.

“Was her character totally fictional, or was she based on a real person? I don’t know. It blurred reality with fiction. Even the sounds in the headset: that police siren. I’m still not sure whether that was a real siren or part of the show.”

The Rear View cut-up bus turns heads in Batley

Parked outside the Croaky Frog Café in Batley the cut-up bus is causing a bit of a stir.

“Do you fancy coming to one of our performances?” asks Creative Scene’s Nancy to the older woman pushing her dog along on a stroller.

“I don’t like things like that,” says Ann, surveying the raked seating. “Besides, I wouldn’t get him up there.”

“Maybe come to the Festival on Saturday?” suggests Nancy, passing on a leaflet. “Everything’s free.”

Ann looks down at her little dog. “I’ll see.”

The highlight at this weekend’s Batley Festival will be IOU Theatre’s immersive bus tour where the 40-strong audience sit facing out the back of this mid-engined Volvo B10M as they follow a 70-minute performance around town.

I first heard about the half-bus, half-auditorium back in November when the Halifax-based arts group pitched their idea to Kimberley Thirkill, chair of the Festival. She liked it, obviously.

And, judging by the tour dates for Rear View, lots of other people liked it too. As well as being co-commissioned by Creative Scene the bus has already performed at Norwich, Greenwich and Blackpool this summer with Great Yarmouth and Redcar still to come.

“Everyone back on the bus,” calls IOU’s artistic director, David Wheeler. Minutes later we’re driving down Commercial Street waving to bewildered pedestrians as if we’re on The Mall. This is a rehearsal run but it might as well be a publicity tour. We’re definitely turning heads.

The bus seats look unremarkable but, as technical manager Dan Powers points out, “underneath each is a bunch of sophisticated microelectronics that allows each audience member to be totally immersed in the show through their headphones. And, for anyone with visual impairments, we can direct a bespoke audio description to their individual headset.” Clever.

“Ah, lovely,” I say, nose in the air, as we turn into the sweet-smelling Fox’s Biscuits compound. Performance poets Cecilia Knapp and Jemima Foxtrot are already here.

Once we’re parked up David gently directs each of them as they take turns on top of an external staircase. “Maybe stay up there for a while longer,” he says to Jemima as she begins her lines.

‘We used to scramble up the painted, padlocked gates to get in here,

to share White Lightning from a two-litre bottle.’

Cecilia explains there are two versions of Rear View which will alternate across the 14 performances in the next three days. “We’ve each written a different script so, depending when you come, you’ll see me or Jemima as we travel around Batley.”

“And in each town you’ve tweaked the script to include elements of that place?” I ask.

“Absolutely. The story is essentially the same – about the memories of a woman we play – but we’ve adapted it to include what we’ve found out about each town.”

Back on the bus we head for the final stop, alongside Batley cemetery where Cecilia rehearses her monologue.

‘I used to write letters I would never send,

I wrote letters to them all before I left.’

A woman passing by looks back at the bus and breaks into a scurry in the opposite direction when she realises she’s in the middle of something big. She is.

Three hours later we are in Empire House, opposite Dewsbury Town Hall. This evening Cecilia and Jemima are leading a creative writing workshop for local writers and poets who’ve been attending Creative Scene’s spoken word events.

“So in these sessions we’ve been asking participants to explore the idea of place,” begins Cecilia, “because that’s what we’re doing in our show.”

“People have strong connections with place,” adds Jemima “and it can trigger strong emotions… it holds so much memory.”

After some warm-up exercises – including thinking up adjectives to describe a fish – we all get stuck in writing a piece about a place where we are happy. Heads down, scribbling, we have no difficulty in getting something on paper and there’s no shortage of volunteers to share their efforts.

“I loved your piece,” I say to Jason afterwards, who produced a seemingly effortless recollection of going out to play as a lad.

“Once they had given us some prompts it just started coming and there was loads to work with and develop,” he says. “I could easily picture my childhood in my mind’s eye as if it was happening in front of me. It was really interesting, I enjoyed it.”

Rear View will be at Batley Festival, Friday 8th-Sunday 10th September. Book tickets here.

Batley, the town that sings

“I like singing, but I don’t want to belong to a choir,” says Elizabeth. “I don’t want to have to dress up and go out to perform.”

We’re in the community room at Batley Central Methodist Church and Elizabeth is preparing for another session with Opera North’s outreach people. “Last week we sang Evening Prayer from Hansel and Gretel… and in harmony.”

cs_051216_045-editEarlier this year Opera North worked with the people of Batley to put on Batley Does Opera in this very church. It was a huge success.

“This is something a little different,” says Hayley McColl, Opera North’s lifelong learning manager who is preparing refreshments. “Batley Does Opera was very much cross-generational with children and adults performing together. These sessions are for older adults and they have lots of social side-effects.”

I must look quizzical because Hayley explains, “There are lots of proven health benefits associated with singing in a group. And we keep it very informal, people can drop in and out.”

This is the second of three taster sessions running before Christmas. For those who want more there’s a 10-week session in the new year.

I’m introduced to Hayley’s colleagues, soprano Sarah Ogden and pianist Jenny Martins before Sarah invites the group to stand for some warm-up exercises.

“Okay let’s start with ‘One… two.. three… four…’” she sings, moving her hand higher and higher on each beat.

cs_051216_022-editcs_051216_033-editAfter the group have sung about ‘Chicken tikka, mango chutney and a pint of lager,’ it’s down to business as Sarah and Hayley distribute the music for Evening Prayer. “We’ll do it line by line and if you could repeat it after me,” says Sarah.

“That sounds really good. Really good. Would you like to do some harmonies now?”

cs_051216_040-edit cs_051216_023-editDuring the tea break I ask a couple of the singers why they’ve come today. “Because I love singing,” says Diana. “I used to sing in a choral society and I’d like to get back into real singing.”

“The last time I sang seriously was in the school choir,” says Trish. “I really liked it and, apart from singing around the house, I haven’t sung since.”

“What does singing do for you?” I ask. “I can’t sing but listening to you lot I wish I could. It feels quite spiritual.”

“It can be,” says Diana. “It can be quite spine-tingling.”

“You certainly can’t be thinking about your shopping list,” says Trish. “You have to concentrate so I think singing is ‘otherly’ in that respect.”

Tea and biscuits complete, Sarah kicks off part two. “You can come in your Christmas jumpers next week if you’d like. We’ll do my version of the Twelve Days of Christmas.”

I’ll be back.