on board with Britain’s most unusual theater company

A less ordinary acting life: Mikron's artistic director Marianne McNamara (centre) with performers Elizabeth Robin, Joshua Considine, Christopher Arkeston and Rachel Benson - Rachel Benson

A less ordinary acting life: 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 once from the carbuncle of modernity. How else to describe Mikron as British theatre’s very own hidden gem? Believed to be the only theater company in the world to tour by narrowboat, for 50 years this liveliest of touring companies has brought shows to a halt across the Channel network during the summer months, going about its entertainment business with very little fanfare.

Based in Marsden, Huddersfield, Mikron (pronounced as in Mick, not Mike; also Greek for small, ‘mikros’) has logged an estimated 34,000 boat hours on the waterways over half a century. In that time it has presented over 60 original shows by various playwrights. All shows feature songs performed by the small group of actors and musicians.

These are no slacking luvvies, but struggling crew members; living cheek by jowl, cooking, cleaning and managing as they go from lock to lock. Four actors is the norm, paid at least the Equity touring rate. Powered throughout their five-month canal trip by an eco-friendly two-tanker of diesel, however, they effectively sing for their supper. There is a minimum of Arts Council funding (£47,000 per year) but punters are asked to pay what they can at the end of each performance, presented not on board but in grassroots pitches near the mooring, from village halls and allotments to parks and gardens outside pubs; the company enters into an agreement with the relevant host, whether a public servant or local authority, and also regularly checks in with the Canal & River Trust.

It is estimated that Mikron has performed for more than 430,000 people over the decades, although the mileage and range has been enhanced by touring by van. The current tour takes in 140 venues. The pressing issue right now is the negative effect of the heatwave on water levels, but earlier this summer – in Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire – a common hazard on the job appeared: an aggressive family of swans nesting near the boat.

Some stops offer weird bragging rights – since 2019, Mikron has been entertaining naturists in various locations, while remaining clothed. “The standing ovation at the end was quite something,” jokes artistic director Marianne McNamara, recalling the first encounter with this unrestrained society in Oxford. Last year they played to an outdoor naturist crowd in St Albans, one of the cast boldly joining the crowd 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, however, has been idyllic, and a group of bronzed, happy faces greet me as I board what feels like the Channel equivalent of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: a 72-foot-long, seven-foot-wide beauty called the Tyseley .

Mike Lucas had no particular expertise when he had his ‘eureka’ moment while shaving one day and decided to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime watery adventure, with his wife Sarah and son Sam, a first-year-old, in tow. First established in 1963, his fringe company was kept going on an ad hoc basis but now found its raison d’être and, as Lucas, 81, reflects, it has endured because so many people have come on board with ideas.

The first canal trip, in the autumn of 1972, in the precursor vessel to Tyseley, was prevented by industrial action. Lucas, who now lives in Brittany, recalls: “The lock keepers went on strike and we ended up stuck on the Grand Union Canal at Berkhamsted. But a Scot turned up in a van and vowed to drive us to all the shows – and that’s one of the things that would happen with Mikron all the time.”

The accidents have been dramatic in themselves. When the waterways were in a dilapidated state, there were various unsightly discoveries, here an old mattress, there a dead dog; a cast member, appearing in a 1978 play called What a Way to Go, narrowly avoided being caught in a keyhole 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 asked us to keep it [Sam] away from him as he did not like children!”

There is less hard drinking now than there was back then, but financial liquidity has often been a headache. McNamara, who joined as an actor in 2003 and took over Mikron in 2009, has been given the job of keeping things afloat financially, even if the company’s backers are the all-hands-on-decks type when the alarm bells ring.

“When we’ve launched an appeal, letters have arrived in the post containing checks and saying things like ‘You’ve given us good memories’. I remember being asked by the Cultural Council: ‘How well do you know the audience?’ I said I know their dogs’ names, where they go on vacation, what kind of people they are.” That the community is reciprocated; Lucas reckons that some families have seen Mikron shows for three generations – “Those who came in 1972 now have their grandchildren with them”.

Mikron performing at Ellesmere Port - Rachel Benson

Mikron performing at Ellesmere Port – Rachel Benson

We slide from Tring to the Rising Sun pub in Berkhamsted, but getting there is not without mishap; at one point Tyseley rams another boat and destroys the tiller. But as if by magic, a welder materializes in a boat behind, sorry, the repair work is organized and paid for, and the vacationing couple in question later sees a performance, without hard feelings.

“It’s a debut made in heaven,” enthused Hannah Bainbridge, fresh out of drama school and teaming up with 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 is a better job. You learn so many skills and it’s never the same show.”

All interested applicants receive a phone call before the audition warning of the pressure, but this pressure, by all accounts, makes you a better actor. “It’s very demanding,” says Lucas. “You have to develop your projection and deal with all kinds of things – dogs sitting down in the middle of the stage, a tractor starting to come in the fall.”

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

Mikron’s 2022 shows, “Raising Agents” and “Red Sky at Night,” tour through Oct. 22; micron.org.uk

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