Upon attempting to coax Guardian reviewer, Lyn Gardner, to see my show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year she said, misty-eyed “what is it about York which generates interesting theatre companies?” I let the silence settle while wondering how best to respond to such a heuristic line of questioning from Britain’s most eminent critic of new writing. I explained to her about the comparable lack of a decent theatre scene in York, the limited financial resources at both University drama societies, and fewer rehearsal spaces than most cities in which to experiment. Fearing that she misunderstood my cynicism for pessimism, I followed this up with a statement which matched even her own philosophical rambling: “the lack of resources pressures our combined imagination into new creative zones.” She was impressed with my pretentious, yet astute response, and consequently came to see my show, tweeted about it in the affirmative, and caused a surge in ticket sales. At the Fringe, it seems, arrogance garners great rewards.
Gardner was onto something when she pointed out York’s impressive history at the Fringe in recent times. Five years ago a group of students from York University took a big risk. With their own money Belt Up Theatre took not one, but multiple shows to the festival and gained great acclaim from Gardner and other critics alike. Their tongue-in-cheek meta-theatricality was nothing new in contemporary professional theatre, but their application of these techniques to older texts like Moliere’s The Tartuffe, and Kafka’s The Trial was a breath of fresh air for the student theatre scene at C Venues. Still high from their success Belt Up went from strength to strength, and the following year ran their own venue, The Red Room, which became quite the talking point. As well as attracting theatre goers from far and wide, their eccentrically themed parties made The Red Room and The House Above the goto social space. This company’s cocksure approach, their frisson for risk, their creative entrepreneurialism inspired a renaissance of aspiring Fringe theatre makers in York . It didn’t really matter if one liked or disliked their end product – the pell-mell of positive reviews was enough to make student companies after Belt Up hungry to mirror their success.
In my own time in York, two theatre companies seemed to assume the major chords in York’s output at the Fringe: Unwish Theatre and Tell-Tale Theatre. The first was a new writing company, the second produced children’s theatre based on classic stories and fables. In 2010 Unwish took Carnivalé , a unique dining experience. The premise was that the audience would sit down to a three course meal and enjoy the play acted out by their fellow actor-diners. Although I hear from second hand horror stories the food was unimaginably inedible, the idea was original enough for the play to stand out. A year later people were still reminding visitors about the originality of the show. Unwish tried their chances with two more plays in the following year. The first was Bepo and Co. a sort of whistle-stop tour of 20th century politics told by clowns. If that wasn’t zany enough, Rain was an outdoor production where a father and his daughter collected and sold rain to the audience of fifteen that came to see it. (Incidentally this writer acted in that latter show and feels the need to caution his praise with this gentle caveat.) Unwish received a lot of flak for their execution but their ideas were always been outside the box. Where other companies play safe with Berkoffian grotesques, or multi-rolling, Unwish have turned space on its head and aspired to provide audience’s with that wonderful phrase which is said too much and practised too little: experience.
Tell Tale are arguably the most successful of all York’s theatre ventures in Edinburgh. They began humbly, slumming it in Grass Market, just off of the Royal Mile, the festival’s prime location. But although they were dealt a bad hand that year, they outsold many rival companies in their first year and gained such a name for themselves they skipped out the usual stint at C Venues and went straight to Underbelly, a step up on the ladder of professionalism. Gone were the days of chasing bureaucrats at C for hours on end, now they were sharing space with fringe regulars like Edward Aczel and Ruby Wax. Their two shows last year Matilda and Star Child were promising. But like Unwish, their contributors have flown the nest, and this year we sadly won’t be seeing a return of Rain or Star Child. I withhold from saying Belt Up are still going strong. They are certainly still going, but at a much sower pace than before. Last year they took up three shows with just three actors. Some great stuff, but they are less the fringe conquerers now, and rather the fringe old hats.
The old order changeth, yielding place to new. From the vacuum emerges the ultra-ambitious Hinge Theatre. In their embryonic youth they are already running their own venue at Hill Street. Perhaps they are running before they have even grown legs. Perhaps this writer is a little too bored of yet another good theatre company from York. I eagerly await the next stage of innovation. The next Belt Up to pick up the festival by its dull lapels and shake some life into it. The new door opens this year, I hope the ‘hinges’ don’t fall off.