The canals are often hailed as the hidden gems of our cities, hidden from roaring traffic, one step away from carbuncular modernity. How else, then, to describe Mikron if not as the hidden gem of British theater? Reputed to be the only theater company in the world to tour in a narrow boat, for 50 years this liveliest touring company has carried stage performances across the network of canals during the summer months, carrying out its leisure business with very little fanfare.
Based in Marsden, Huddersfield, Mikron (pronounced as in Mick, not Mike; as well as in Greek for small, “mikros”) amassed approximately 34,000 hours of navigation on waterways during his half-century. During that time he presented over 60 original plays by different playwrights. All the shows feature songs performed by his small cohort of actor-musicians.
These are not idle luvvies, but hard-working crew members; living cheek after cheek, cooking, cleaning and driving as they go from one lock to the next. Four actors is the norm, pay at least the Equity tour rate. Fueled during their five-month canal tour by two tanks of eco-friendly diesel, they are actually singing for their dinner. There is an Arts Council funding minimum (£ 47,000 per year), but bettors are advised to pay what they can at the end of each show, presented not on board but in basic locations close to the mooring site, from the town halls and gardens. to parks and garden plots outside pubs; the company enters into an agreement with the relevant host in question, whether it is a publican or a local authority, and also regularly checks the Canal & River Trust.
Mikron is estimated to have performed in front of more than 430,000 people over the decades, although his mileage and reach are bolstered by van tours as well. The current tour includes 140 locations. The pressing issue right now is the ripple effect of the heat wave on water levels, but earlier this summer – in Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire – a regular job hazard arose: a aggressive family of swans, which nests near the boat.
Some stops offer weird bragging rights: Since 2019, Mikron has been entertaining naturists in various places, while staying dressed. “The standing ovation was a good thing in the end,” jokes artistic director Marianne McNamara, recalling her first encounter with this uninhibited community in Oxford. Last year they played to an outdoor naturist audience in St Albans, one of the cast who bravely joined the audience after the show for a skinny dip.
It is a rain or shine operation. This year, however, has been idyllic and a bunch of tanned, happy faces greets me when I board what looks like the canal equivalent of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: a 72-foot-long, seven-foot-wide beauty named Tyseley.
Mike Lucas had no special experience when one day he had his “eureka” moment while shaving and decided to embark on a singular watery adventure, with his wife Sarah and son Sam, initially a baby in her arms, in tow. His fringe company was first formed in 1963 and continued on an ad hoc basis, but it has now found its raison d’etre and, as Lucas, 81, has survived because so many people have entered. aboard the idea.
The first tour of the canal, in the fall of 1972, on Tyseley’s precursor ship, was hampered by industrial action. Lucas, who now lives in Brittany, recalls: “The doormen went on strike and we ended up stuck on the Grand Union Canal in Berkhamsted. But a Scotsman showed up in a van and promised to drive us to all the shows, and that’s one of the things that happened to Mikron all the time.
The incidents were dramatic in themselves. When the waterways were in a dilapidated condition, there were various unsavory discoveries, here an old mattress, there a dead dog; a cast member, who appears in a 1978 play called What a Way to Go, narrowly avoided being trapped in a paddle hole and drowned.
A feeling of shipwreck also took hold when John Noakes filmed an episode of Go With Noakes with them, but he was neither interested nor child-friendly. “The director told us to keep [Sam] away from him because he didn’t like children! “
There is less alcoholism today than in the past, but financial liquidity has often been a headache. McNamara, who joined as an actress in 2003 and took over Mikron in 2009, has had her work interrupted to keep things afloat financially, even though the company’s supporters are the kind of at all costs when the doorbells ring. ‘alarm.
“When we appealed, letters came in the mail, containing checks and saying things like ‘You gave us good memories.’ I remember the Arts Council asking me, “How well do you know your audience?” I said I know what their dogs are called, where they go on vacation, what kind of people they are ”. That commonality is reciprocated; Lucas believes that some families have seen Mikron’s shows for three generations: “Those who came in 1972 now bring their grandchildren.”
We slip from Tring to the Rising Sun pub in Berkhamsted, although getting there is not without incident; at one point Tyseley rams another boat, wrecking his helm. But as if by magic, a welder materializes on a boat behind him, apologies are made, repairs are organized and paid for, and the vacationing couple in question later witnesses a show, with no hard feelings.
“It’s a debut made in heaven,” enthuses Hannah Bainbridge, who just graduated from acting school and found herself with fellow rookie Alice McKenna, Thomas Cotran (sophomore) and James McLean (a veteran, returning for its sixth season). “I honestly can’t believe there is a better job. You are learning so many skills and it is never the same show.
Every interested candidate gets a phone call before the audition warning you of the pressures, but those pressures, they all attest, make you a better actor. “He’s very busy,” says Lucas. “You have to develop your projection and tackle all kinds of things: dogs sitting in the center of the stage, a tractor starting to harvest.”
Or even a Freddie Mercury masquerade party getting loud in an adjacent space, something he recently struggled with in Worcester. “They refused to calm down, so we had to speed up the show,” laughs McNamara. “I kept telling the cast ‘Cut that little bit’.” Seems like another lousy night to remember. It doesn’t matter to kill for a ticket, if I were an actor, A-list or whatever, I’d kill to get my hands on the helm.
Mikron’s 2022 shows, “Raising Agents” and “Red Sky at Night”, on tour until 22 October; mikron.org.uk