Review: Signal Fires Festival, Northern Girls, Pilot Theatre and Arcade, YMCA Theatre Car Park, St Thomas Street, Scarborough, October 27 and 28
ALAS, we are confined to keeping only the home fires burning as Lockdown 2: The Sequel beds in from Thursday, putting live theatre back in its box for at least a month.
Yet in this desperate year, nights such as the Northern Girls showcase for female voices have risen from the ashes of 2020 to make the Signal Fires Festival a heart-warming herald of how theatre can diversify to survive the stultifying Covid strictures that have left the industry under threat.
Over the years, CharlesHutchPress has reviewed productions staged in York in an echoey multi-storey car park and at a pop-up Elizabethan theatre built on a car park. Now, the Tarmac surface of the Scarborough YMCA Theatre car park can be added to that list, on a Tuesday night of numbing exposure to the autumn elements that made the glowing presence of four fire pits so welcome to complement scarves and the now de rigueur masks.
Ben Cowens’ silvery lighting of a lonely tree added magic to the setting and provided a point of focus for the performers brought together by pioneering York company Pilot Theatre and Arcade, the new Scarborough community producers
The time-honoured tradition of telling stories at the fireside lies at the heart of Signal Fires, albeit that everyone was keeping their social distance, sitting in pods of two, rather than huddling around the heat, all wearing a headset for clarity of sound, as is the norm at outdoor performances this year.
Each commissioned vignette was a solo piece – a concentrated artform but practical for Covid times – setting free eight stories of girls and women who live along the North East coastline, as Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson did when growing up in Redcar until the age of 11. Linking them altogether was the theme of what mattered most to writers and performers alike in 2020.
Here was a chance to see a quickfire new work by fast-rising High Kilburn playwright Charley Miles, setting the bar high with the opening Erosion, performed by professional debutante Holly Surtees-Smith, who returned for Rant, by Amy-May Pell, one of four new writing talents nurtured for Northern Girls by York theatre-maker, playwright and tutor Hannah Davies.
Richardson and Arcade’s Rach Drew spread the net wide along the coastline to fish out stories from Zoe Cooper, from Newcastle (Kat/Cassie, performed by Laura Elsworthy) and Maureen Lennon, from Hull, whose rousing The Scarborough Porpoise marked Northern Girls’ second professional stage debut by the bravura Laura Boughen.
This frank, fearless, funny and fiery feminist tale was chosen for the finale, such was its potency and desire for freedom, riding the waves amid the porpoises.
British-Sudanese spoken-word artist (and basketball player) Asma Elbadawi performed her own work, The Girl Next Door, reflecting on growing up as a hijab-wearing girl in Bradford.
Lighting the torch for breaking barriers and finding liberation, Northern Girls also introduced new works by Shannon Barker, from Scarborough (First Date), and York College A-level student Ariel Hebditch (Yin And Yang), both performed by Siu-See Hung.
Claire Edwards, writer of the past five Scarborough YMCA Theatre pantomimes, here changed tack to make waves with Waves in a second monologue for the outstanding Laura Elsworthy.
Good news too, Signal Fires will not merely turn to ash. Suitably fired up by Northern Girls, Esther Richardson is keen to roll out this pioneering writing project in other communities too.