REVIEW: The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre, At The Mill ****

Trouble at the Mill: Musician Phil Grainger and writer/storyteller Alexander Flanagan-Wright presenting Orpheus and Eurydice at Stillington Mill. Picture: Charlotte Graham

REVIEW: The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre, in At The Mill, Stillington Mill, and beyond

ALEXANDER Flanagan-Wright and Phil Grainger should have been in Edinburgh right now. Instead they will be popping up at the Pop-Up On The Patio festival at York Theatre Royal tomorrow.

On The Fringe up further north, they were all set to perform the North Yorkshire double act’s British premiere of The Gods The Gods The Gods, episode three of their spoken-word and soulful-song 21st century twist on ancient Greek tragedies in the year 2020BC…Before Covid.

The duo had been touring The Gods x 3 and its “brother and sister” predecessors, Orpheus and Eurydice, in Australia, with New Zealand next, when Covid-19 dropped in its unwelcome calling card, sending Alex back to Stillington Mill, his family’s converted 17th century corn mill, and Phil to Easingwold.

Eighteen months of UK and international tour plans have gone into the pending file, but Alex and Phil are not of the “so far, so furlough” lockdown mentality. Alex took to ‘writing’ while walking the dog, recording his rhythmic thoughts; Phil penned new songs on his unruly guitar, as well as shaping up on shifts in his father’s picture-framing business.

“You have to try to find round pegs to fit round holes,” said Alex, as he and Phil and their respective companies, The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre, set about launching their five-pronged art attack, I’ll Try And See You Sometimes, seeking new horizons in the year 2020BC. Beyond Covid and its killjoy claw in this new age of “Use your hand sanitiser but try not to lose your sanity”.

Definitely not Yorkshire! Alexander Flanagan-Wright and Phil Grainger on their global travels

Among this summer’s outward-thinking projects has been the Hyper Local Tour of Orpheus, taking the two-hander to people’s socially distanced back gardens at their invitation.

A small step, for small audience numbers, maybe, but nevertheless adding back gardens to Orpheus’s list of 325 shows in Oz, NZ, New York, Bali, let alone a boat on the River Ouse and a shoes-off night in the magnificence of Castle Howard.

Alex and Phil then decided to go even more Hyper Local for “six days of work” in Alex’s own back garden at Stillington Mill, 11 miles north of York.

This is no ordinary back garden with its mill pond, fairy-lit woodland, shepherd’s hut for holidays lets and open-air marquee for weddings and performances on what appears to have been a disused tennis court. Game on, nevertheless, for the artship enterprise.

Entering this magical arts hub is like leaving behind the Athenian court for Titania and Oberon’s woods in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Alex perhaps in the sprightly sprite role of Puck and big Phil as a keen-to-do-everything Nick Bottom but never quite making an ass of himself!

At The Mill ran for six shows in six nights with Covid-secure, social distancing measures in place, picnics optional, as the globe-trotting, back-home gents played to a maximum audience of 30 per 7pm gig from August 2 to 7. Total attendance: 175 out of a possible 180, making the low-key run a palpable hit, like the shows, whether old, nearly new or hot of the book and songbook presses.

Oh…you are Orpheus. The poster for The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre two-hander

“We’re doing some Orpheus, some Eurydice, and one night of New Stuff We Haven’t Done Before,” the duo had announced online, with the aid of an Instagram poll to decide whether Orpheus or Eurydice would win out on the Tuesday.

Eurydice had her day and her say that evening beneath the trees as Alex and Phil took on roles that had been shaped by Serena Manteghi and Casey Jay Andrews on overseas duty. Alex had a book in his hand, not because he couldn’t be bothered with learning the lines, but because he loves the feel of the book in which he wrote those lines.

It as if by touching the book, he connects directly to his heart, because his heart bleeds in these words. Without dwelling here too much on his own circumstances, it hurts…and this time it’s personal, cathartic, but beyond the dates he mentions, it is universal too.

Add Phil’s songwriting, guitar and electronica to Alex’s lyrics, and Eurydice’s torrid yet beautifully nuanced tale of love and loss, a bee tattoo and a bee sting, hits you with the force of a Bill Withers or Otis Redding song.

If Eurydice pulls off the trick of being both formal in structure yet informal, then Wednesday night’s New Stuff We Haven’t Done Before in the marquee was very much the latter.

Alex once more in jaunty trilby, jeans and T-shirt, Phil in baggy clown’s pantaloons, they introduced crossfire works from The Gods The Gods The Gods before Alex premiered his new piece penned in lockdown, This Story Is For You.

One guitar + one book + two hats + six shows = Phil Grainger and Alexander Wright’s At The Mill festival of two-handers at Stillington Mill. Picture: Charlotte Graham

Already available in assorted print forms decorated by guest illustrators for I’ll Try And See You Sometimes, now it tripped off the lucid tongue, as poetic, as timely, as insistent and surprising as a Kae Tempest (formerly Kate Tempest) album, as Alex recounted a female love story gone so right, then so wrong. Throughout, Phil accompanied on gentle waves of guitar, the tide coming in on the key of E.

The second half was given over to Phil, a storyteller without a script or book, as much as a soul-mining singer and songwriter, encouraged by Alex to grow more confident in his own candid, humorous, touching lyric-writing to match his ever-affecting way with a tune.

He even covered a teenage lament by a former Easingwold school colleague called Josh, who has long deserted his list-making song. Wrong, Josh, it’s a curio beauty, worthy of The Undertones’ first album.

Phil calls himself Clive, his middle name, his father’s name too, when performing solo (with occasional vocals and drum patterns from Alex), but this is Phil talking, this is the Phil sound, and it really is time he made an album.

And so, Orpheus and Eurydice, Alex and Phil, move on to the Theatre Royal patio for tomorrow’s double bill: another day, another garden.  

What comes next for the ever-busy double act? Wood has arrived at Stillington Mill for Alex and Phil to start work on converting the marquee into an outdoor theatre. If they build it, we will come.

In the swing of it: Phil Grainger and Alexander Flanagan-Wright at the outset of their six-pack of At The Mill shows at Stillington Mill. Now they switch to the more compact Pop-Up On The Patio garden at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Charlotte Graham

Orpheus, The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre in Orpheus, Pop-Up On The Patio, York Theatre Royal, tomorrow, August 21, 6pm

WRITTEN by Alexander Flanagan-Wright, with incidental music and songs by Phil Grainger, Orpheus is a thoroughly modern, beautifully poetic re-telling of an ancient Greek myth.

Dave is single, stood at the bar; Eurydice is a tree nymph…and Bruce Springsteen is on the juke box in this tale of impossible, death-defying love told through hair-raising spoken word and soaring soul music, where Alex and Phil weave a world of dive bars, side streets and ancient gods.

Eurydice, The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre, Pop-Up On The Patio, August 21, 8pm

LENI is five years old, holding a Superman costume for her first day at school. Eurydice is five years into the rest of her life, sporting a bee tattoo on her wrist, in Alexander Flanagan-Wright’s story of someone defined by someone else’s myth.

This tale of making changes, taking leaps and being a daily superhero is billed as “a story about a woman told by women”. That was the case when performed by Alex and Phil Grainger’s co-creators, Serena Manteghi and Casey Jane Andrews, to 2019 Adelaide Fringe Best Theatre award-winning success.

Now, Alex and Phil take over to weave a world of day-to-day power and beauty and goddesses, relayed through heart-stopping spoken word and live electronica. Watch out for the sting in the tale.

Tickets are on sale at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk and MUST be bought in advance.