WITHOUT York Theatre Royal, Simon Armitage may never have become Poet Laureate.
Let the Huddersfield writer explain, as he did last night on the first of two fund-raising nights for the Theatre Royal’s community fund.
As a boy, Armitage’s first experience of poetry in performance – poetry in motion, as it were – was attending a double bill of fellow Yorkshiremen Ted Hughes and Tony Harrison at the York theatre.
Last night, he was on that stage himself, marking the tenth anniversary of Seeing Stars, his “very theatrical, very dramatic” book of dramatic monologues, allegories and absurdist tall tales.
Curated by Scarborough-born theatre director Nick Bagnall, who made the briefest of appearances at the start, the show combined Armitage, standing to one side, with four actors, beret-hatted Richard Bremmer, Charlotte Mills, Tom Kanji and Kacey Ainsworth.
Sometimes seated in a row, sometimes leaping to their feet, if the lines demanded it, they took their lead from the dry-witted, deadpan Armitage, who orchestrated the show’s rhythms from beneath his still boyish fringe at 56 with a stand-up’s sense of timing.
In a show of two halves, there was a sense of mischief and playfulness throughout, as well as more serious observations, even bleak horror, that the thespian quartet revelled in as much as Armitage.
So much so, at one point he cut across Ainsworth, not rudely, but because he could not resist the sudden urge to read out more of his favourite opening lines from the poems, such was his enjoyment of the audience response.
I say “poems”, but at the outset Armitage recalled how reviewers had been unsure of exactly what these works were. “Not poetry,” said one. “Crazy, slightly surreal,” was Armitage’s own description last night, as the likes of The English Astronaut and Last Day On Planet Earth spun their modern-day fairytale magic.
Behind Armitage and co was a large print of the book cover: a hybrid of a horse and a pooch that captured this storytelling fusion of prose and poems. Prosems, if you like. It is a perfect choice of image, like Armitage chooses his words so cannily.
There is another story here too. Proceeds will go to the Theatre Royal’s community work that facilitates bringing people to the theatre who would not otherwise be able to visit. Later this year too, there are plans to “embed” people with dementia in youth theatre sessions in a union of old and young. Fantastic idea.
Tickets are still available for tonight’s 7.30pm performance, when you can savour a night of surprises, satire and surrealism from a Yorkshireman with a darker vision than Alan Bennett crossed with Ripping Yarns. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.