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.

“You’re immersed… the whole experience is fantastic.”

“You’ll get all your instructions from the actors through your headphones,” says volunteer steward Jon as he checks in another of the sell-out audience. “It starts here and you’ll make your way down to the bottom of the park.”

“Brilliant,” says Catherine who’s brought two of her grandchildren to the second of today’s three performances.

“How did you find out about the show?” I ask as she leads the kids through Bagshaw Museum to collect the headsets.

“I picked up a flyer in the bus station,” she says, “it sounded really interesting. It’s all interactive, isn’t it?”

Peter Pan in the Park is local theatre company Wrongsemble’s biggest solo project so far and, with six sell-out shows over this bank holiday weekend, is also the most popular on Creative Scene’s On Tour series for family audiences.

The series usually just runs in non-theatre venues during school half term holidays but, to keep audiences growing, this year a summer commission was offered for a site-specific experience here in Wilton Park.

Jon Humpleby, the Community Manager from Batley Bulldogs, one of the venues for the school holiday shows, was invited to be part of the commissioning process.

“As a rugby club it’s good for us to offer something different to the community,” he says after he’s passed on his front of house duties. “And at The Bulldogs the family shows have been really gathering momentum.

“I was on the panel when we met everyone who applied for this commission,” he says. “I’m not from an arts background and that was a new process for me. I probably had more of a community engagement head on and was looking for something that had a wide appeal.”

“And everyone knows Peter Pan,” I say.

“A familiar story is important,” says Jon. “And this company has delivered other shows for us and they always do it with such energy and enthusiasm.”

Sporting hi-tech headsets the audience is introduced to ‘Pan’ and Gwen (a descendant of Wendy) in the Hall before being lead outside to meet the grumpy Tinker Bell.

“All you’ve got to do is think of a happy thought,” says Pan, attempting to teach everyone to fly. “Come on, man,” she shouts to a burly dad skulking at the back, “there’s got to be one in there somewhere!”

The hour-long performance finds ‘Tinks’ taking us through Neverland Border Control where we impersonate pirates and get a glimpse of the dastardly Captain Hook. We then help Smee find buried treasure; we chant along with Tiger Lily from the Lost Camp and finally throw imaginary spells at Hook and his pirate ship.

As the exhausted company eventually take a bow I turn my tape recorder on some of the audience.

“We met you at Savage Hart at Oakwell Hall,” says Karen who’s here with friend Cheryl. “Do you remember? That was a great performance, it stayed with us for days.”

“And so you’ve now brought your folks to this too?”

“Hart was so good, we thought we’d all give this a go. It’s been brilliant, so well thought out. Really clever.”

Batley residents Sonia and Gareth are here with their kids James and Beth. “We know the park really well,” says Sonia, “so it was nice to see it used in such a creative way. Very effective.

“We were just saying what good value for money it was too,” says Gareth, “and the interactivity with the headsets worked really well.”

Jon and I start our climb back up the steep path back to Bagshaw Museum. He’s stewarding for the final show too.

“From the minute you put your headset on, you’re immersed for the whole hour, aren’t you? It’s non-stop. If it’s not the actors talking then it’s music or sound effects… or pirates grunting.

“I took mine off at one point,” he says, “and could hear people singing along, or booing, making pirate noises. It was brilliant.”

“We need to teach you lot how to fly!”

“This is where the audience meets me for the first time,” says Tinker Bell clutching her umbrella as if it’s a wand.

“My character is a prima donna. She’s a bit grumpy and doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

“And do you find that challenging, being grumpy?” I ask, cheekily. The rest of the cast burst out laughing.

‘Tinks’ dismisses the banter with a wave of her umbrella. “Elvi has cast us all with our own personalities in mind,” she laughs.

We’re at the top of Wilton Park near Batley, adjacent to the magnificent Bagshaw Museum, and I’m about to follow the Wrongsemble theatre company cast for a run-through of their version of the J.M. Barrie classic.

Written and directed by Elvi Piper, Pan in the Park will lead lost boys and girls through the beautiful Wilton Park that for two days over the August bank holiday will be transformed into Neverland for the West Yorkshire company’s most ambitious project yet.

“Our actors will wear radio microphones and the audience will all have headsets so they’ll not only hear Captain Hook sparring with Peter Pan but they’ll also experience specially created audio effects that will bring the show to life.”

Elvi set up Wrongsemble three years ago after identifying a gap in the market for good quality family theatre. “I’d see lots of shows that young people enjoyed but bored the grown ups or alternatively the adults liked but went over the heads of the young people.

“Family theatre should be an experience for the whole family,” she enthuses, “that’s where the idea for Wrongsemble was born.”

“And that fits in perfectly with the aspirations of Creative Scene,” I suggest.

“Absolutely. They have been a huge supporter. They’ve taken a chance with us and believe in what we do.”

Pan in the Park will be Wrongsemble’s third collaboration with Creative Scene. Their previous productions – Three and Billy Shakes – both went down a storm on the On Tour half term circuit.

“We want theatre for everyone,” says Elvie. “For people who’ve never experienced it before and in places where you wouldn’t expect to experience it. We need to take our work into communities, not expect people to turn up at venues.”

“Wilton Park certainly isn’t your regular theatre venue,” I say as we head down the steep path.

“We can’t close the park,” chips in Kirsty Pennycook who is producing the show as well as playing one of the pirates, “and neither would we want to. So you’ll have dog walkers bumping into Captain Hook hiding in wait, which will be fun.”

“Pirates can be anywhere in Neverland!” declares Tinks from the base of a huge tree.

“Elvi has written and directed the show specially for this park,” whispers Kirsty as the rehearsal continues, “and it wouldn’t be the same show anywhere else. So when it’s steep, that’s part of the narrative and when it’s dark, that’s part of the narrative too. It’s really lovely.”

“And is there a crocodile in the lake?” I ask.

“Not in the lake,” she says, not wanting to give too much away, “but there is a crocodile.”

With Tiger Lily, the head of the Lost Girls, cast as a St Trinian’s-type figure and Wendy replaced by Gwen, her great-great-granddaughter, this adaptation is set to be a hit.

“We try to choose stories that have an air of familiarity so people feel confident they will enjoy them,” explains Elvi as we walk towards a stone bridge across a cutting. “But we also challenge our audiences by giving them something different. You’ve never seen Peter Pan like we’re doing it. It’s modern, punky and very unexpected.”

I’m hooked.

Pan in the Park is on Sunday, 27th August and Monday 28th August, 11.00, 1.30 and 4.00.
Tickets here or from Bagshaw Museum, Wilton Park, Batley, WF17 0AS. Limited tickets available on the day.

Newcomers rock up for a ‘turn’

“This is the first time we’ve gone public,” says Parveen as platters of sandwiches and samosas are laid out in preparation, “so I’m really excited about that.”

It’s Friday night and yet again we’re at Sensory World in Dewsbury for the fourth edition of Creative Scene’s spoken word event.

Up until now organiser Parveen has invited local writing groups and poets first hand. “For tonight’s event we had some postcards printed and I put them in libraries, in the railway station and around the pubs that I know do open mic events. Let’s see who rocks up.

“This is tonight’s host,” says Parveen introducing me to a man rubbing the front of his T-shirt. “I’ve just been for something to eat,” says Phil Pearce, “and got mango chutney all down me.”

Phil and I find a quiet corner for a quick interview. “What did you make of it when Parveen asked you to compere this evening?”

“I wrote my first ever poem and performed it on stage last October, so all this is very new to me,” he says, “and this is the first time I’ve been asked to host. It’s brilliant.”

Phil tells me he started to write when he was in prison. “In 2013 I was convinced for drug offences – I’d been addicted for 10 years – and the first poem I’m going to read tonight is about my addiction.”

More people arrive, most are regulars but I spot a couple of faces I haven’t seen before. “I work at Dewsbury Library,” says Katie. “And this is Ash.”

“Do you write and perform?” I ask Katie’s friend.

“I’m in a band and write music,” says Ash, “but no, we’re just observing tonight.”

“Well, last time a young woman was so inspired by what she heard in the first set that she wrote a piece in the break and performed it in the second half,” I say. “So you never know. Have you got a pen?”

After a brief welcome from Parveen, Phil is on his feet and, by way of introduction, apologises for the chutney stain.

His poem about drugs – “Hello, my name’s Phil and I’m an addict” – is followed by a very personal one about cancer and a third about knife crime.

“Let’s get all the heavy stuff out of the way in the first half,” he jokes, “so we can lighten things up after the break.”

One performer follows another. There are pieces about dementia, loneliness, volunteering, NHS privatisation, community unity and a lament for the passing of the X33 bus.

While we all tuck into the sandwiches and samosas at half time I notice we’ve been joined by a group of five young woman.

Maariya tells me she’s been writing a blog for a couple of years now and she heard about tonight’s event at the library. “What’s your blog about?” I ask.

“Contemporary topics about Indian life,” she says. “I write about marriage, friendship, forgiveness, the future, ego, that sort of thing. But I’ve never read anything in front of a group before.”

“Are you nervous?” Maariya holds her hand flat above her head.

“You’ll be fine. They’re a friendly and supportive bunch.”

Before the second half kicks off I catch up with Katie and Ash again. “Written anything yet?” I ask Ash.

“No, but, to be fair, it’s been very inspiring. It has actually made me want to give it a go. Maybe for the next one.”

“Wow, brilliant,” I say genuinely. “And Katie, I’ve just been chatting to Maariya.”

“Yes, she was talking to a colleague about her blog and I gave her one of the postcards Parveen had left. And yeah, she’s come along tonight.”

“Okay,” shouts Phil, “Are we ready for the second half?”

For details of the next It’s a Word Thing, keep an eye on Creative Scene’s website or email parveen@creativescene.org.uk

“You’re drawn into the story from the very beginning.”

“You’d get a good view from over there,” I suggest to the first of the audience as they stagger in with their folding chairs and cool boxes.

There’s an hour to go before the first performance and punters have been invited to arrive early and enjoy their picnics before the show.

It gives me a chance to catch up with co-director James Doyle-Roberts who I interviewed during last week’s rehearsals. “Happy?” I ask.

“Very happy,” he says. “We’ve been lucky with the weather this week so we’ve had time to really push the precision of the choreography.

“To see this up,” he nods to the huge metal rig above the stage, “and see them perform against the backdrop of Oakwell Hall has just been brilliant.

“And it’s been great working with Amy and Charlie, the two local scenic artists. I gave them a couple of boxes of old tableware and antique bits and bobs and they’ve created these beautiful installations dotted around. They’ve really come up trumps.”

The walled garden is filling up fast and I wander round with my tape recorder. “And where are you all from?” I ask a group of four older woman who are unpacking their picnic.

“I’m from Virginia,” says Sharon.

“And I’m from North Carolina,” says Carol.

Eyebrows raised, I turn towards their companions. “We’re from Dewsbury,” says Christine in an altogether more familiar accent.

Turns out Christine and Sharon are both Soroptimists – the women’s version of Rotary – and have been visiting each other for over 25 years.

“We like the theatre and last year we saw Wicked at The Alhambra,” says Christine, unwrapping ham sandwiches, “but I couldn’t find anything appropriate until I saw this advertised in The Reporter.”

“She always entertains us well,” says Sharon.

“So the pressure’s on,” I tease. “This has got to be one of your memorable experiences.”

“I can tell it already will be,” Sharon says, pouring red wine into a plastic glass beaker.

On the front row, Karen and Cheryl from Barnsley have installed their professional-looking picnic basket on a chair in front of them. “What have you got in there?” I ask.

“Stuffed peppers, smoked salmon, sausage rolls and the odd homemade vanilla slice,” reveals Karen, excitedly. “We’re having a real girly-bonding session tonight.”

“I haven’t had a picnic since I was a kid,” says Cheryl, “and I’ve never been to an outdoor thing like this before.”

“Well, enjoy,” I say, leaving them to tuck in.

Lucas is here too with his mum Debbie. “I last photographed you at HeckmondLIGHT, didn’t I?” I remind the teenage dancer. “What are you up to?”

“I’ve off to uni in September,” he says, “to do contemporary dance.” Part of Rebecca’s West Yorkshire Drama Academy, Lucas has thrown himself into all things Creative Scene over the last couple of years.

“You’ll have to give me your professional opinion of the show afterwards,” I suggest.

Production director Karen is front and centre now. “Thank you everyone for coming tonight to Oakwell Hall. Creative Scene is about to present to you Savage Hart by Citrus Arts. The show will start in approximately five minutes…”

“Wow, it was incredible. So creative,” says Sharon 70 minutes later and after the five performers have taken their final bow. “From the very beginning you were drawn into the story. It was magical, just magical. And the music… wow.”

“So that was a hit,” I say to Christine who is putting lids on plastic containers, beaming.

“I was mesmerised,” she says. “The dancing and the acrobatics… just fantastic.”

I catch up with Lucas. “The setting was amazing, wasn’t it?” he says. “And the dancers were all in sync and just flowed into each other. The masks were really simple and yet very effective. I just wish I could have seen the musicians a bit more because the music was amazing.”

Karen and Cheryl are packing the remains of their expansive picnic away. “What did you make of it?” I ask, “the show, not the vanilla slice.”

Tickets for tonight (21st) and tomorrow’s (22nd July) performances are still available ‘on the door’ at Oakwell Hall. Picnics from 6pm. Show starts at 7pm.

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