Mad swans and jolly naturists: on board with Britain’s quirkiest theatre company

·6-min read
An actor’s life less ordinary: Mikron’s artistic director Marianne McNamara (centre) with performers Elizabeth Robin, Joshua Considine, Christopher Arkeston and Rachel Benson - Rachel Benson
An actor’s life less ordinary: Mikron’s artistic director Marianne McNamara (centre) with performers Elizabeth Robin, Joshua Considine, Christopher Arkeston and Rachel Benson - Rachel Benson

Canals are often hailed as the hidden gems of our towns and cities, tucked away from roaring traffic, at one remove from carbuncular modernity. How else, then, to describe Mikron but as British theatre’s very own hidden gem? Reputedly the only theatre company in the world to tour by narrowboat, for 50 years this most buoyant of touring companies has brought shows to stop-offs across the canal network over the summer months, going about its pleasure-giving business with very little fanfare.

Based in Marsden, Huddersfield, Mikron (pronounced as in Mick, not Mike; as also in the Greek for small, “mikros”) has notched up an estimated 34,000 boating hours on the waterways during its half century. In that time, it has presented over 60 original shows by different playwrights. All of the shows feature songs performed by its small cohort of actor-musicians.

These are no lounging luvvies, but toiling crew-members; living cheek by jowl, cooking, cleaning and steering as they proceed from lock to lock. Four actors is the norm, paid at least the Equity touring rate. Powered throughout their five-month canal tour by an eco-friendly two tanks of diesel, they’re effectively singing for their supper though. There’s a modicum of Arts Council funding (£47,000 per year), but punters are asked to pay what they can at the end of every show, presented not on board but in grass-roots places near the mooring site, from village halls and allotments to parks and patches of garden outside pubs; the company strikes a deal with the relevant host in question, be it a publican or local authority, and regularly checks in with the Canal & River Trust too.

It’s estimated Mikron has performed to more than 430,000 people down the decades, albeit its mileage and reach are bolstered by touring via van too. The current tour takes in 140 venues. The pressing issue right now is the knock-on effect of the heatwave on water levels, but earlier this summer – in Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire – a regular hazard of the job cropped up: an aggressive family of swans, nesting near the boat.

Some stop-offs offer weird bragging rights – since 2019, Mikron has been entertaining naturists at various locales, while remaining clothed. “The standing ovation at the end was quite something,” jokes artistic director Marianne McNamara, recalling the first encounter with this uninhibited community, in Oxford. Last year they played to an outdoor naturist crowd in St Albans, one of the cast boldly joining the audience after the show for a skinny dip.

The company entertains an audience of naturists - Rachel Benson
The company entertains an audience of naturists - Rachel Benson

It’s a rain-or-shine operation. This year, though, has been idyllic, and a group of bronzed, happy faces greet me when I step aboard what feels like the canal equivalent of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: a 72-foot-long, seven-foot-wide beauty called Tyseley.

Mike Lucas had no special expertise when he had his “eureka” moment while shaving one day, and decided to embark on a singular watery adventure, with his wife Sarah and son Sam, initially a babe-in-arms, in tow. His fringe company had first been set up in 1963 and been kept going on an ad-hoc basis but now found its raison d’etre, and as Lucas, 81, reflects, it has endured because so many people have got on board with the idea.

The first canal tour, in the autumn of 1972, in the precursor vessel to Tyseley, was stymied by industrial action. Lucas, now living in Brittany, remembers: “The lock-keepers went on strike, and we ended up getting stuck on the Grand Union Canal at Berkhamsted. But a Scotsman appeared in a van and vowed to drive us to all the shows – and that’s one of the things that would happen to Mikron all the time.”

The mishaps have been dramatic in their own right. When the waterways were in a dilapidated condition, there were sundry unsavoury discoveries, here an old mattress, there a dead dog; one cast member, appearing in a 1978 play called What a Way to Go, narrowly avoided being trapped in a lock paddle-hole and drowned.

A sinking feeling also took hold when John Noakes filmed an episode of Go With Noakes with them, but proved neither interested nor child-friendly. “The director told us to keep [Sam] away from him as he didn’t like children!”

There’s less hard drinking now than there was back in the day, 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 cut out keeping things afloat financially, though the company’s supporters are of the all-hands-on-deck sort when alarm bells clang.

“When we’ve launched an appeal, letters have come in the post, containing cheques, and saying things like ‘You’ve given us lovely memories’. I remember being asked by the Arts Council, ‘How well do you know your audience?’ I said I know what their dogs are called, where they go on holiday, what sort of people they are.” That communality is reciprocated; Lucas reckons some families have seen Mikron shows for three generations – “Those who came in 1972 now bring their grandkids.”

Mikron performs at Ellesmere Port - Rachel Benson
Mikron performs at Ellesmere Port - Rachel Benson

We glide from Tring to the Rising Sun pub in Berkhamsted, though getting there is not without incident; at one point Tyseley rams another boat, wrecking its tiller. But as if by magic, a welder materialises in a boat behind, apologies are made, the repair work is organised and paid for, and the holidaying couple in question later watch a performance, with no hard feelings.

“It’s a debut made in heaven,” enthuses Hannah Bainbridge, who has just graduated from drama school and mucked in with fellow newcomer Alice McKenna, Thomas Cotran (in his second year), and James McLean (an old-hand, back for his sixth season). “I honestly can’t believe there’s a better job. You’re learning so many skills, and it’s never the same show.”

Every interested applicant gets a phone call before their audition warning of the pressures, but those pressures, all attest, make you a better actor. “It’s very demanding,” Lucas says. “You’ve got to develop your projection and deal with all kinds of things – dogs sitting down in the middle of the stage, a tractor starting to get in the harvest.”

Or indeed a Freddie Mercury fancy-dress party turning raucous in an adjacent space, something recently contended with in Worcester. “They refused to quieten down, so we just had to speed up the show,” McNamara laughs. “I kept saying to the cast ‘Cut that bit’.” It sounds like another barmy night to remember. Never mind kill for a ticket, if I was an actor, A-list or otherwise, I’d be killing to get my hands on the tiller.

Mikron’s 2022 shows, ‘Raising Agents’ and ‘Red Sky at Night’, tour to Oct 22; mikron.org.uk

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