Mikron Theatre Company in Atalanta Forever and A Dog’s Tale, on tour on boat, road and holding on to a lead until September 19
AFTER a Covid-cancelled year of no shows but resolute fund-raising to secure their future, Marsden’s Mikron Theatre Company are on their travels once more, giving plays the canal route treatment where possible aboard narrowboat Tyseley.
This should have been their 50th year of “theatre anywhere for everyone”, but those celebrations must wait until 2022. Nevertheless, the refreshing sight of company stalwart James McLean back on stage, in the company of fellow actor-musicians Rachel Benson, Elizabeth Cotran and luxuriant-haired Thomas Cotran, was cause enough to bring out the cheers at the Piece Hall press night for Amanda Whittington’s “fight for women’s football” drama, Atalanta Forever, in the Halifax open air.
Two nights later, and the same cast parked up at Scarcroft Allotments, in York, just as bushy tailed and bright eyed for the musical canine comedy caper A Dog’s Tale, Poppy Hollman’s debut professional commission after taking part in Mikron’s Writers’ Scheme in 2018.
Halifax, first. Noises off could be heard, nothing too distracting, not only from the bars around the Piece Hall but the peregrines that have taken over the Square Chapel gothic tower as their aerie. Then again, the players of Huddersfield’s Atalanta AFC women’s football team would have been used to crowds at fund-raising games for wounded soldiers, especially when playing the mighty Preston factory team Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC, legendary gay star winger Lily Parr et al.
Parr was the first woman to be inducted into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame, her pioneering story being told on stage in both Benjamin Peel’s Not A Game For Girls and Sabrina Mahfouz and Hollie McNish’s Offside, a play football, feminism and female empowerment.
Little is known of Atalanta AFC, however, who played for only a couple of seasons from 1920 before folding in 1924. “All that remains is a fixture list, a few newspaper reports and precious team photos,” writes Whittington in her programme notes.
“Who are those pioneering women and girls,” she asks. “The silence around them gave us space to imagine who played for Atalanta and why? It also allowed me to draw on my experience in the long shadow of the FA ban [on woman’s football that ran from 1921 to 1971].”
Aged 11, Whittington was the only girl who played in a 1980s’ Nottinghamshire boys’ village tournament and was promptly advised to stop because it “wasn’t appropriate”. She still feels the injustice, the sense of shame of wanting to do something she was “not meant to”.
Atalanta Forever is her revenge play, she says. Amanda has written 30-plus plays, from Be My Baby to Ladies Day, Bollywood Jane to Mighty Atoms, and this time it’s personal. But not too personal, and not too, too serious either.
Although written with a campaigning zeal for the female empowerment of these ground-breaking players of the Twenties, Atalanta Forever is irreverent too about the beautiful game that is often anything but that, typified by the opening Rules Of The Game song. Ruby Of The Rovers and Girl’s Own adventures meet Match Of The Day and John Godber’s Rugby League physical comedy Up’n’Under.
Atalanta AFC blue-and-white scarves knitted by Mikron supporters decorate the fencing – and were tempting to purloin as the second half turned chillier – as we learn of the back stories of Annie (Benson) and Ethel (Robin), one a fireworks factory worker, the other a tram driver, when they join the new team.
Into the story come the multi-role playing Cotran (as team captain Constance, radical coach Ms Waller, Huddersfield Town legend Billy Smith and more besides) and McLean (as scoffing groundsman Arthur, a disapproving mother and John Motson send-up, Motty Johnson).
In Mikron tradition, Whittington’s play is as educative as it is entertaining, balanced between righteous ire and humour, football match highlights and life off the pitch. She weaves in accounts of being stopped from writing left handed, the fate of a conscientious objector, massive post-war unemployment and strikes and a mother’s scorn for suffrage and socialism, but at the same she revels in an impromptu match with beret-wearing French tourists and even a Boris Johnson cameo.
How else could the play end but with a tribute to Lily Parr, a cheer for women’s football now thriving and a “nod to the brave girls who carried on”. Atalanta Forever is a resilient triumph, from Whittington’s stirring writing to Marianne McNamara’s pacy direction, Kieran Buckeridge’s playful songs to a chameleon cast of multiple talents. Back of the net!
Two evenings later, it was sunnier by far as dog owners took their pooches along the lane beside the Mikron van at Scarcroft Allotments. Again, they had brought only the simplest of set designs with a rail for hanging myriad costumes, instruments and props to the side, a raised stage and no lighting.
One of the joys of a long Mikron summer is the chance to see the same cast tackling two plays (although, alas, the 2021 tour being restricted to outdoor performances means no Clements Hall show this year in York, so you will have to travel farther afield).
After football in Atalanta Forever, McLean, Benson, Robin and Cotran head into another competitive environment, the Cruft’s dog show, in A Dog’s Tale: cat-loving Poppy Hollman’s look at canines past and present, Cruft’s now and Cruft’s when started by cat-owning Charles Cruft, a suitably dogged late-19th century showman of Barnum instincts, puppy-keen to take on the stuffy Kennel Club.
The bond between people and their ‘best friends’ is ever present, ever enduring, even if shenanigans and skullduggery blight the competition in Hollman’s tale, one informed by her visit to Cruft’s in the name of an intrigued novice’s research.
History combines with a little mystery, a sense of mischief with an outsider’s initiation, in the world of “heroic hounds, pampered pooches and naughty nobblers”, as Benson’s Linda and her wayward rescue mutt, Gary, find themselves pursued by security through the halls of Crufts, accused of a “terrible crime”.
Robin and McLean have much fun as Margo and Carl, unbearably precious, ever-panicking, regular Cruft’s competitors; Cotran reels off all manner of accents in a multitude of roles; McLean twinkles as Cruft and has the best cameo in a spoof on Barbara Woodhouse.
Hollman challenges her cast with 20 characters between them, and in her first full-scale play, the characters and caricatures are her strongest suit, along with her sense of fun, both sharper than the dialogue and the slightly clunky storyline involving Gary’s crime and the naughty nobbler.
By comparison with McNamara’s Atalanta Forever, Rachel Gee’s direction has to work harder to maintain momentum and maximise the humour, but the performances are typically energetic, inventive, engaging and diverse, and the one scene with interloping cats is a gem of physical comedy and knowing contrast with the otherwise omnipresent dogs, topped off by a Dogs V. Cats rap battle.
Musical director Rebekah Hughes’s compositions for Hollman’s smart lyrics are a blast and Celia Perkins delivers fabulous costume designs that accentuate character superbly. The stiff dog’s leads with simply a collar where the head would be (rather than puppets) are particular favourite among the props.
Ultimately a little overstretched, the eager-to-please A Dog’s Tale nevertheless has much to enjoy, announcing a new talent in Hollman with the tools to take her comedy writing to the next level.
For the full tour itineraries and booking details, go to: mikron.org.uk. P.S. Dogs are welcome at most performances of A Dog’s Tale.