A trip to Manchester is prompting me to write this – I’m off to see The Animals and the Children Took to the Streets for the third time after a gap of around 5 years. Admittedly, I’m irrationally hyped and as I’ve got a few hours to kill (thanks to the unreliability of rail services, but that’s another essay entirely), I’m cracking out this ode to my favourite theatre companies – the ones who cause audible responses and a skip of a heartbeat when I spot their name in a season programme or a Twittersphere announcement. Here’s the who, the what and the why…
I’ve always loved quirky theatre and I tend to be far more gripped by pitches of out-of-the-box Studio works than grand mainstream productions (though I love those too of course). I’m always far more drawn to a Physical Theatre piece featuring puppetry or surreal styles than I am a kitchen sink Drama. It can be a very hit-and-miss field. So just try to imagine my awe when I discovered 1927 Productions, who take everything great out of the box and leave the building with it.
This company interweaves stylised live-action with animations in narratives taking a blunt, satirical look at current issues – and they do so with all the creative dynamism of an Olympic gymnast who freelances in the evenings. The actors interact with non-naturalistic animations with mind-bending fluency and accuracy while donning white painted faces for some of the very best arresting visuals to be found in theatreland.
The stories are narrated bitingly and all action is perfectly scored. Every so often I still find myself humming Lillian Henley’s score for The Animals and Children without warning. Usually prompted by some form of childish over-excitement. They really are Just. That. Great.
Kneehigh have been a long term love of mine. I first saw them perform Hansel and Gretel at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool (back in 2009 I’m guessing). Again, I hadn’t really seen theatre of this quality or skill before. Kneehigh slapped me around the chops with surprising, exciting and visually arresting work.
Their productions are incredibly innovative and visually impressive but what sets the work apart is the infectious sense of fun and mischief pervading everything they do. The shows are endlessly inventive and therefore always promise to thrill, the energy is equally impressive, and so is the heart so clearly beating at the centre of every production. Their work can be moving and dark as well, but they are just an absolute pleasure and a joy to watch, constantly transforming things before our eyes and showing us just how magical theatre can be.
What’s more, Kneehigh has a cracking cast track record. To see this company transform props and sets into unexpected contraptions and worlds is one thing, but to deliver consistently outstanding casts in the process makes them pretty damn top notch. I’ve loved every production of theirs that I’ve seen from Hansel and Gretel to Dead Dog in a Suitcase, 946: The Amazing Adolphus Tips, The Tin Drum and The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk.
I’ve laughed, I’ve giggled, I’ve guffawed and I’ve shed tears. They make my heart light and my eyes shine and for these reasons, the utterly fantastic Kneehigh are very high up on my list of theatre loves.
I’ve seen every show toured by this company since seeing Much Ado About Wenlock at the Unity Theatre in Liverpool around 2009. This full-mask company appeases my love for non-naturalistic aesthetics while also introducing me to the beauty of wordless narratives in wordless worlds.
I had previously loved mask work on the surface reasoning of the aesthetic. I find my love of masks and puppets inexplicable somehow, but it’s real and it’s deep, that love.
Vamos taught me to really appreciate the work of the actor in bringing a static face to life in ways which capture the full spectrum of human emotion – sceptics be still and take a seat, it really is possible and Vamos are glowing proof.
The work of Vamos is compact and concise; set is cleverly multi-functional and the cast is always minimal – usually comprised of around four actors who play an impressive game of switch-the-mask-the-costume-and-the-mannerisms-seamlessly throughout the performance.
This company have managed to deliver some of the most moving theatre that I’ve seen in recent years: Finding Joy, The Best Thing and Nursing Lives each drew tears as well as laughs. The fact that they achieve such power without a monologue or any kind of brutal verbal exchange is a testament to the magic of theatre – and of mask work. When I saw that their latest production Brave Face wasn’t stopping off in Leeds last year, I was up in arms and straight onto the local theatre in a thinly veiled tantrum. Brave Face now has dates at Leeds Carriageworks (not related of course – I have no such power, more’s the pity) and I am so glad to know that I don’t have to miss out on the latest Vamos triumph.
I see Oddsocks’ Touring productions every year when they stop off at RHS Harlow Carr in Harrogate. The venue allows for an outdoor performance and audiences set up picnics and camp chairs on the grassy slope and prepare themselves for riotous entertainment from a company delivering…Shakespeare.
Shakespeare? Yes, I said Shakespeare. Oddsocks take on Will’s work with all the confidence of the very best script manipulators. They take work too often seen as stuffy and alienating and they bring it to the masses updated, rebranded and with unfiltered whackiness.
Even better than that though, they do all of this while using the original script for 90% of the time and the cast are all and always gifted in their affinity with the words of the bard. Even some of the most unfamiliar passages begin to feel like pub chatter. Brilliant.
No, I’m not done with Oddsocks yet. Do you know what also they do which keeps me endlessly enthusiastic about seeing their van returning year after year? They fearlessly deliver Shakespearean classics in the most unexpected ways. They morphed Macbeth into a comedy and it was genius. They made a Mod and Rocker feud of Romeo and Juliet and it went down a storm. They took The Tempest to space and even though most of the ad libs were lost on me that time, it was still a fantastically bonkers and entertaining show. Long may their Shakespearean glory land in Yorkshire!
Frantic Assembly are new to my list despite being very well established and despite the fact that I’ve known of them for years. I’ve seen one show of theirs to date, but that’s all it took to make me a lifer and now I’m simply waiting for the next opportunity.
Frantic Assembly are an innovative company with a distinctly physical approach to their work. From set to story to performance, their work feels ethereal and seems to rise head and shoulders above productions which might be considered vaguely similar.
I saw Things I Know to Be True at York Theatre Royal. Within 5 minutes, a scene involving various family members arriving and sitting around a kitchen table had blown my mind and made me grin ear to ear in one fell swoop. That visual and the skill and precision needed for each actor to stand, spin the table and sit again in perfect unison took my love of physical theatre to a whole new level.
The rest of the production simply continued in that exact same level of style and skill but it’s that ‘simple’ but inspired table sequence which I still think about at least once a week. As I sit down to a meal. Naturally. It’ll take a while for another production to trigger such instant awe in me I think. Give me more Frantic Assembly in my life STAT. Please and thank you.
Honourable Mention: Propeller (MIA)
Now, talking about Propeller is a little upsetting for me *sniff*. You see, they’ve disappeared and I can find not a whisper nor a trace of them. If you know what happened to this superb company, please let me know – it’s been a mystery for too many years and this girl needs closure!
Why were Propeller so superb? Much like Oddsocks, they revolutionised the bard. An all-male multi-disciplined sizeable cast performed a variety of Shakespeare’s plays and made dear Will shine like he never had before in my eyes.
Sure, I’d seen great Shakespeare productions and I’d been impressed by RSC productions bringing the stories to life with feeling and skill. But Propeller took Shakespeare and made him thoroughly engaging, entertaining and for the first time, meaningful.
As a company Propeller injected far more humour into Shakespeare’s work than other productions and they also seemed to find humour in the original work which other productions seemed to glaze over or fail to realise at all.
Despite being an all-male company and therefore having the ever fruitful box of boy-dressed-badly-as-girl gags, they didn’t lean on them beyond what was genuinely funny – it wasn’t a horse they flogged and the wheels stayed on. And it takes insight and confidence to make that decision, to go for laughs earned through craft and graft rather than too many simple laughs too easily won. Their comedy and liveliness came from physicality, dynamic staging and token costume pieces. I miss them so…
What’s more, I haven’t seen a Shakespeare production to rival theirs since I saw them perform a thoroughly fantastic double bill of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night at Nottingham Theatre Royal. I include Oddsocks here as their approach is not the same – Propeller delivered near-sincere productions with great twists while Oddsocks paints new lines for the narrratives with big bold colourful strokes. Both companies are GREAT, but different.
Propeller were in a league of their own. *Sigh*
So these are my favourites and long may they reign – or in the case of Propeller, soon may they return! I realise that my favourites may not be yours. I may not have even encountered yours yet. Now there’s a thought – I’d better get back to the theatre then…
PS: there are some other companies which I’ve seen more recently which feel very exciting in my early experiences with them. I’m sticking to just five letters of theatre love here, but I do recommend that you take a look at some of these other up and coming or established and growing beauties: