Taking trouble at At The Mill to build a community for the arts and the people

Daniel Kitson: Testing out new material in six Outside performances at Stillington Mill

SUMMER At The Mill is returning for a second season of creative, culinary and community events in the gardens of Stillington Mill, Stillington, near York.

“After the spectacular, gorgeous, fun, exciting, beautiful and heart-warming time we had throughout our inaugural summer last year – what a ride! – we’re over the moon to present the mixed bag of goodies that is Summer At The Mill 2.0,” says programmer, theatre director, writer and performer Alexander Flanagan-Wright.

“Until September 4, we’ll be hosting a load of wonderful events all about community, art, food and flipping good times. We’ll have a pop-up café and bar, community gatherings, theatre, music, comedy, supper clubs and special events.”

The “Wright stuff” is the work of outdoor theatre co-builder Alex, sister Abbigail Ollive (Saturday café cuisine queen and supper club supremo) and their retired headteacher parents Maggi and Paul Wright, together with partners Megan Drury and Paul Smith. That “stuff” also takes in weddings, events and shepherd’s hut accommodation: truly a village cottage industry, you could say, albeit somewhat larger than a cottage.

A Supper Club gathering at At The Mill

“We just had a blast summer,” says Alex. “It was kind of by accident. It felt very serendipitous or of its moment, saying, ‘here is a way we can gather safely, our local community and the arts community, post-lockdown’.

“So this summer is a chance to see if people still care, and so far the evidence is that they do, with the return of the busy Saturday café, the Crafty Tales show [The Case Of The Missing Bunny] that sold out, our Pizza & Cocktail Night and the Dance Dance Dance Big Bank Holiday Silent Disco.

“Last year felt like a huge rush of adrenaline, and then you think, ‘OK, where do we go forward this year for beautiful experiences together?’. Already this year, we’re meeting new people coming to the events and the café.”

Summing up the essence of At The Mill, Alex says: “We believe a feeling of community is so important when people want to have an evening out. Whereas commercial theatre can feel merely transactional, with us, the means is the art, but the end result is a sense of community, and that feels the right way round.

Alexander Flanagan-Wright: At the heart of At The Mill

“On top of that, eating outside together, drinking outside together, is a lovely thing to do, and we have the space and setting to do that.”

Where once Stillington Mill’s 18th century mill would produce flour, now the At The Mill combines food with food for thought, new recipes at the Supper Club, new works on stage. “We’re very clear with the artists about that. Everyone we’ve asked, we’ve said, ‘we think you’re cool, we like your work, do you want to come and play with us?’,” says Alex.

“What we have in abundance is space and time, imagination and a community. What we don’t have in abundance is cash, but we find most performers end up walking away with cash in their pocket.

“We don’t say to them, bring a particular show. What you get instead is artists testing out new material, so it becomes a genuine relationship with the audience built around nurturing new work. We’re seeking an equal balance between the two communities, where they care about each other, and if we do our part well in bringing them together, then they will meet in a beautiful way, and hopefully that process is more valuable, than, say, a Q&A session in a theatre.”

The Saturday cafe at At The Mill, baked by Abbigail Ollive

Alex continues: “Hopefully too, we’re going to be able to sustain that culture of being able to welcome artists for whatever they want to try out, and of audiences being continually excited about seeing new work at such an early stage, performed by people they wouldn’t expect to be passing through their village.”

A case in point is Edinburgh Fringe favourite Daniel Kitson, the Denby Dale stand-up comedian, who asked to take part in the Theatre At The Mill programme after he was tipped off by storytelling performer Sam Freeman.

“Daniel got in touch to say hello, could he come and do a show? I don’t know what the show is about; I don’t know if Daniel does yet, but that feels a pretty exciting thing to be going on, and testament to our aim for brilliant performers to test out their work to our community,” says Alex.

“I’m also aware that there will be those who don’t know who Daniel Kitson is and would just see him as someone standing up in a garden! But it feels beautiful to know that his shows in May will be his first in two years and it’s great to be part of that work-in-progress experience.”

Chris Stokes: Storytelling comedy in Lockdown Detective at At The Mill on May 26

Clearly, plenty of people know exactly who Daniel Kitson is: his 8pm performances of Outside on May 23 to 25 have sold out already and his June 8 to 10 run looks close to following suit.

What’s in store from Kitson? Here’s the show blurb: “Daniel hasn’t been on stage for over two years. And, to be entirely honest, he’s not really missed it. It is, however, his actual job and everyone’s gone back to work now. So, he’s picked out a comfy pen, bought a new notebook and booked himself a summer’s worth of outdoor shows to find out whether he can still do his job and what, if anything, he has to say to large groups of people he doesn’t know.”

Given his performing hiatus and lack of practice, Kitson predicts the shows are “likely to be relatively rickety affairs”. “But Daniel’s already written the question ‘Do worms feel fear?’ in his new notebook, so we should be okay,” the blurb adds. “Also, if it gets boring – you can just use the time to look at the sky and feel small.”

At The Mill’s role in nurturing new work ties in with Alex’s own creativity as a writer and director, whether directing The Flanagan Collective, heading off to Australia with songwriter/musician/performer/magician Phil Grainger or spending last September to December in New York, making the immersive piece Tammany Hall for the Soho Playhouse.

Gary Stewart: Hosting regular Folk Club nights at At The Mill

“We meet loads of brilliant people when touring our work, and it’s great that they want to come here to test new pieces,” he says. “We’re delighted that people will hone shows here just before the Edinburgh Fringe kicks off, or will do shows here that aren’t going to Edinburgh but fit that vibe.”

Picking out upcoming highlights, singer-songwriterTom Figgins follows up last summer’s gig – his first in four years – with a return tomorrow; Chris Stokes’s storytelling comedy show, Lockdown Detective, is booked in for May 26, and Scottish musician Gary Stewart, now resident in nearby Easingwold, will host his regular Folk Club night on May 27, June 24 and July 8.

“For his first night, it’ll be just Gary and his guitar, performing Paul Simon songs solo rather than with his Graceland band. It’s lovely for us that a local musician, who’s internationally renowned, came here and said, ‘I want to play here every month and bring acts here regularly’,” says Alex.

At The Mill’s ERII Platinum Jubilee celebrations will take in Jubilee Jubilee, A Very Jubilant Cabaret, on June 3 and A Right Royal Knees Up, with live music and pizza, on June 5.

Maddie Morris: 2019 BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winner, playing a Music At The Mill gig for the first time

Leeds folk duo Maddie Morris & Lilian Grace will make their At The Mill debut on June 12, performing together as Death And The Daughter and playing solo works too. Their 2022 project, The Sticky Monsters, is influenced by the artwork of Swedish artist John Kenn and their compositions deal with childhood, poverty and more general reflections on culture and the idea of fear.

“I saw Maddie, the 2019 BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winner, at The Courthouse, Rural Arts’ home in Thirsk, and she’s an absolute folk musician, studying folk music at Leeds University and looking at contemporary politics through the lens of the folk tradition,” says Alex.

Gemma Curry’s York company Hoglets Theatre will perform the children’s show The Sleep Pirates on June 19 (10am to 1pm); York spoken-word collective Say Owt will host a poetry-writing workshop on June 25 (5pm), followed by an evening showcase (7.30pm); Heady Conduct will combine physical storytelling with live music to tell the Greek myth of Tiresias on July 10, and Paperback Theatre will stage their charming account of roguish Toad’s misadventures, The Wind In The Willows, on July 30 at 2.30pm and 7pm.

Alex himself has a couple of contributions to the season: Monster, a work-in-progress new story, on June 16 and 17, and The Gods The Gods The Gods, the Wright and Grainger show whose Australian premiere tour was curtailed by the pandemic, now making its British debut on July 23, 24, 27 and 28 at 8.45pm.

Gemma Curry in Hoglets Theatre’s The Sleep Pirates

“In its full iteration, it’s a big, heavy show, but this will be a lighter version before we take it to the Edinburgh Fringe,” says Alex of the final work in Wright & Grainger’s trilogy of myths, after Orpheus and Eurydice, both sell-outs at last summer’s At The Mill season.

The Gods The Gods The Gods, with its four stories and 14 compositions, corals big beats, soaring melodies and heart-stopping spoken words as it “calls us to the crossroads where mythology meets real life”.

“The Gods are gathering and you’re invited,” says Alex. “We’re excited about testing it out here, to wrangle up the story, to see that all the text and music works, and then add lights for Edinburgh, where we’ll be doing it in the Assembly’s 200-seat spiegeltent.”

The Mill’s summer programme will continue to add new events, with full details, including tickets, at athemill.org. Shows start at 7.30pm unless stated otherwise.

The Flanagan Collective’s Alexander Flanagan-Wright and Gobbledigook Theatre’s Phil Grainger staging Orpheus and Eurydice at At The Mill’s socially-distanced summer season in 2021. Picture: Charlotte Graham

Yoshika Colwell’s Invisible Mending show unravels at Theatre At The Mill tonight

Yoshika Colwell: Two shows for At The Mill’s residency week at Stillington Mill

AS part of At The Mill’s residency week at Stillington Mill, near York, Yoshika Colwell gives a work-in-progress performance of Invisible Mending tonight (16/9/2021).

At 8pm, the former University of York student explores creativity, knitting, the strange journey of grief and the transcendent act of swimming in the sea.

“In the summer of 2020, as a global pandemic raged, Yoshi was processing the unexpected dying and death of her beloved grandmother, Ann,” explains At The Mill programmer Alexander Wright. 

“A woman of few words, Ann’s one great creative outlet was knitting. And not just any knitting. Her projects were glorious, intricate, virtuosic works of art, which still adorn the wardrobes of her nearest and dearest.

“As she reached the end of her life, Ann started a new project. Too wide for a scarf, too narrow for a jumper, this project had no end goal. She was simply using up the last of her wool.”

Yoshi now takes up this piece where Ann left off. “Like the fates who weave our destiny, like Penelope who works her wool all day and unpicks at night, and like the Lady of Shalott, who must keep weaving to remain alive, Yoshi explores what it means to pull loose threads together,” says Alexander.

“She weaves together live music, knitting, interviews, and diary entries into a tapestry that asks us what creativity is, and how it can help us as we navigate the inevitable journeys we must all take.”

Yoshi will complete her residency with Yoshika & Friends, Sunday’s 8pm concert of new music, showcasing her soul-searching debut solo EP, her first since Luuna’s 2016 EP, Moonflower. Fellow residency participants Max Barton and Jethro Cooke’s experimental outfit, Slowstepper, will perform too.

For tickets, go to: tickettailor.com/events/atthemill.

REVIEW: Eurydice, Serena Manteghi & Phil Grainger, Theatre At The Mill, 7/8/2021

WRITER Alexander Wright and composer Phil Grainger presented Eurydice last summer, first as part of At The Mill’s six nights of six works, then at York Theatre Royal’s Pop-Up On The Patio festival.

The sister piece to Wright and Grainger’s Orpheus had, however, been shaped on overseas duty by Serena Manteghi and Casey Jay Andrews to award-winning success at the Adelaide Fringe in 2019, and it was actor-singer Serena who headed to Stillington last week to reacquaint herself with Eurydice…and a live audience.

For her first stage appearance in a year, she was joined by pantalooned Phil, on electric guitar, occasional humorous interjections and vocals, under the shelter of At The Mill’s bar after the forecast of a deluge forced a late switch of location from the Mill’s open-air theatre.

The rain subsequently did play its part, but only for second-half cameo that complemented rather than ruined the top billing.

“It feels weird calling it a performance. It’s just us chatting,” said Serena, but she was underselling the performance’s combination of formality and informality, and the skills required to deliver its graceful ebb and flow, both in word and song in heightened moments.

In Serena’s hand throughout was a book, Alex’s book, containing both his Orpheus and Eurydice stories. Alex had performed that way too, 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.

Serena broke off to explain the roots of her following the same performative practice – “a tradition,” she called it – and the book then became more of a comfort blanket, there for her to check a line in case she dried.

Eurydice is a spoken-word show, but one that is theatrical too, given how Serena moved around the café bar and interacted with Phil and his sympathetic, symbiotic guitar, especially when duetting instinctively on songs, whether Phil’s own compositions to Alex’s lyrics or interpretations of apposite Kate Bush and Cyndi Lauper numbers.

Wright’s story is billed as a “tale about being a daily superhero and the need to let go of the stories we think define us”, prompted by his realisation that while Orpheus’s underworld story is familiar, we never hear Eurydice’s account, not even one word from her. History, even in myths, puts the ‘his’ into history, rather than telling her story.

Wright rights that wrong, creating Eurydice as her “untold story imagined and reimagined for the modern-day and told from her perspective”. All the more so last Saturday and Sunday, now that Serena was saying those words, while Alex restricted himself to electronica and sound duties to the side of the bar.

At the outset, Eurydice becomes Leni, five years old on the first day of the rest of her life in a one-parent household, when she wants to wear her superhero costume to school. Attentive listening is then required to follow the story’s path because Wright eschews reportage in favour of storytelling language more poetic, more affecting, more rhythmic, more heart-felt, in part torn from his own torrid back-story.

The story may be ancient, but Wright’s interpretation feeds into the modern world in its detail, although it also remains timeless, such is the universality of its themes of love, cheating, flash-flood romance and finally breaking free. “Hold me in a moment made of everything,” is an image we all want to hold, because we know it can only be impermanent.

In Manteghi’s performance, with Grainger a responsive musical radar to her side, Eurydice’s tale of love and loss, a bee tattoo and a bee sting became even more moving, still cathartic for Wright, but now truly Eurydice’s story, told her way.

Writer, director, musician, theatre maker, actor, but still Alex is nervous about tonight

In a field of one: Alexander Wright, playwright, poet, storyteller, musician, director, facilitator, theatre builder…and now solo performer

ALEXANDER Wright is nervous about tonight, but why?

Let Alex tell the story: “In a potentially remarkable act of narcissism, I am doing a solo gig of my own work in a theatre I built [with Gobbledigook Theatre’s Phil Grainger and dad Paul Wright] in my back garden at 7.30pm. 

“It’s the first time I have ever done a solo gig. I write lots of stuff, direct lots of stuff, tour Orpheus, Eurydice & The Gods The Gods The Gods to hundreds of places.

“I’ve released Half Man//Half Bull, a double narrative-led album, with Phil and Olivier Tilney. My production of The Great Gatsby has been performed across the UK, in Belgium, Ireland, and Korea to hundreds and thousands of audience members.

“But I’ve never really stood in front of people and performed my own stuff, on my own, for an extended period. So, now, I am…and I’m nervous about it.”

Double at t’ Mill: Phil Grainger and Alexander Wright at Stillington Mill last August when performing a week of shows back on home turf in Alex’s “back garden”. Picture: Charlotte Graham

Expect beautiful stories, beautiful poems, a few beautiful special guests and hopefully a beautiful sunset under the sails of the At The Mill outdoor theatre on the re-appropriated disused tennis court at Stillington Mill, Mill Lane, Stillington, near York.

Tongue in cheek in its title, Alex’s Remarkable Acts Of Narcissism night is part of the anything but narcissistic inaugural Summer At The Mill season at At The Mill, the Wrights’ family-run business at the mid-18th century former corn mill.

Not only theatre, children’s shows, spoken word and concerts have found a home here but so too has a Saturday morning pop-up café with unicorn ice cream and blissful cakes spun from the culinary imagination of Alex’s sister, Abbigail, and a welcoming wood-burner in the corner.

Then add supper clubs (up next, Tom Smith, from Oxfordshire, cooking an entire lamb on July 17, tickets available); special events; community gatherings; weddings and accommodation in a fairy-lit woodland shepherd’s hut or the two-bedroom Mill Cottage in a converted cow byre.

The stage is set for a night of Theatre At The Mill

Stillington Mill’s pond-side grounds have housed magical performances in previous years, whether on the woodland grass or under canvas, but the outdoor theatre is new for 2021, all because of a vow witnessed one August night by CharlesHutchPress among others at a Grainger and Wright performance in the first socially distanced summer of Covid.

“Phil has a habit of saying what he’s thinking out loud in public, and then being beholden to it. I’m fine with that and so is Phil!”, says Alex, recalling how best friend Phil had announced that a massive pile of wood had just arrived at the mill from G H Brooks, the timber merchants up the road.

They would build a theatre, he promptly promised, with a boldness worthy of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald pronouncing he would construct an opera house in the middle of a jungle in Werner Herzog’s infamously trouble-beset 1982 film Fitzcarraldo. Thankfully, the task proved less arduous, and no-one behaved like loose-cannon prima-donna lead actor Klaus Kinski.

“I think it’s important to get on with stuff, whatever the circumstances you face, and we’ve always done that. If you wait for people to give you permission, it will never happen, but we had the space to create a theatre, so we have,” says Alex.

Alexander Wright performing Orpheus at At The Mill earlier this summer. Picture: Fair Dinkum Film

“There’s something wonderful about an old tennis court making way for a stage, especially in a village where the mill has long been a focal point for the community. There’s been a mill here since being recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086 and the house was built in 1754.

“It’s lovely to keep allowing these buildings to be central to the community, and even though it’s no longer flour, I hope it’s still some form of nourishment, whether it’s cake and sausage sandwiches or theatre and music. It’s good to have an industry of sorts still going on here.”

Phil built the wooden stage and the benches – in his own self-deprecating words “making good-quality wood look like palettes” – with help from his Australian partner Angie Alle, while Alex and father Paul did all the structures above, the pillars and posts and sails. “So, if you fall off the stage, it’s Phil’s fault; if something falls on you, it’s my dad’s and my fault,” Alex jokes.

“Some of it’s trial and error, like having to re-enforce the pillar structures, but we’re always trying to do something that’s beyond what we would normally do. Others might find that intimidating, but I like stretching my capacities.”

Courtly love: Out goes tennis, in comes a theatre, game set and match at Stillington Mill

Reflecting on changing times for theatre and performance under the cloud of Covid, changes that have seen Alex and Phil rooted in North Yorkshire, rather than travelling to New York and the Edinburgh Fringe after returning early from Australia last February, Alex says: “I’m sure lots of people have had the profound realisation in the past 16 months that theatre and the arts are a function or a means to the end,  rather than an end in themselves.

“We get tied up in theatre being something we consume, when in fact it is so much more valuable as a means for people to gather, to hear news, to share stories, to start conversations, and when we’ve not been gathering for 16 months, it’s such a vital tool for doing that – and I think it’s the gathering that’s most important.”

Alex continues: “I love meeting communities, meeting other people, and I feel that everywhere I go, we always leave having learned something. We always play by the same rules: performers and audience, we are together for two hours, and that sense of hanging out together is more important right now than what we see.

“But when we were setting up Summer At The Mill, I was very clear that it needed to serve the communities I care about: the local rural community and the wider, sprawling arts community.

“We’ve made what I hope is a very honest invitation to artists, to encourage them to ask if they want to come here and play, with either a new piece of work or an old piece that they’re getting back on its feet, or maybe for a collaboration, and it’s felt really nice to be able to do that.

A different writing task for playwright and poet Alexander Wright as he works a shift on At The Mill’s Saturday morning pop-up cafe (which turn into a bar for shows, by the way)

“Phil and I see loads of brilliant mates making work around the world, and we’ll hang around with them for a month. Then, six month later, there’ll be another festival, again with all these acclaimed international artists, and it’s kind of amazing when we say, ‘do you want to muck around in our back garden?’ and they’ll say ‘Yes, I’ll try out some new ideas’, and so they’ll play to a new audience, testing out new material. There’s a nice alchemy to it, and it’s a level playing field.

“We’re even talking to a couple of artists about the possibility of doing short residencies, for a week or a weekend, hosting them to let them road-test something new.”

Tonight, meanwhile, it will be Alex’s own turn to do that in a night of spoken word, storytelling and poetry…and, yes, he’s still nervous!

Alexander Wright: Remarkable Acts Of Narcissism, Theatre At The Mill, Stillington Mill, Stillington, near York, tonight (10/7/2021) at 7.30pm. Box office: tickettailor.com/events/atthemill/538906.

REVIEW: Clive, alias Phil Grainger, Music At The Mill, Stillington Mill, near York, July 2

“The second cut is always the deepest when Phil Grainger sings”. Picture: Fair Dinkum Film

BEST buddies since Easingwold schooldays, Alexander Flanagan Wright and Phil Grainger reeled off a series of At The Mill double bills back home in North Yorkshire in the first summer of Covid after their Australian tour was aborted.

New York and Edinburgh Fringe plans were scuppered too, after old York called them home, and more than a year later, they are still here, making magical theatre, song and spoken word.

Oh, and building an outdoor theatre too on Stillington Mill’s disused tennis court, with Alex’s father, Paul, and mother, Maggi, playing a prominent role too in establishing the new and impressively diverse At The Mill enterprise (more of which in a CharlesHutchPress interview with Alex later this week).

Last August’s set finished with Phil announcing that wood had arrived for Alex and Phil to start work on converting that summer’s marquee into an outdoor theatre. “If they build it, we will come,” vowed CharlesHutchPress, and sure enough, this summer finds that theatre in full sail for concerts and theatre shows.

For one night, Phil and Alex teamed up with two friends in Foraged & Forged, a showcase of new material written specially for the occasion. Friday night put polymath Phil in the solo spotlight, in the guise of Clive, and while the pre-show rain enforced a late decision to abandon the plan to do one set from one stage, and a second from another, the format of an acoustic first half and electric second set was retained.

“It’s been a bit of an hour,” he said, putting on his bandana in readiness for adopting Clive mode. “It’s ‘look at how good this would have been. Now is what you’re getting’!”

What we were getting was the solo music project of singer, songwriter, musician, sound engineer, magician, actor, Gobbledigook Theatre director and event promoter Phil Grainger. Why Clive, you ask? Phil is not a name for a singer, he reasons. Er, Phil Collins? “Exactly,” said Easingwold Phil in a typical shard of attractively blunt Yorkshire wit that peppered his performance. “Clive is the name for the thing that’s me doing this.”

Phil Grainger, in Clive mode, performing Under The Sea from the Disney songbook. Picture: Fair Dinkum Film

Clive is his middle name, and his father’s name too, so Clive it is, and tonight the Stillington Mill’s a-Clive with the sound of music. Beautiful, poignant, happy, sad, funny, heart-felt music, sung in one of those surging soul voices where the second cut is always the deepest when Phil, sorry, Clive, lets rip. One of these voices where you ache waiting for those transcendent moments.

Clive would divide his sets, he said, between songs he had been writing for a long time, others that were new, and some so new they were only half written. He would stop them at the point they were half-finished, with no pretence of finesse.

You cannot help but warm to such candour, or indeed to his off-the-cuff sporadic dips into a newly acquired Disney songbook. Or his seemingly rudimentary, yet deeply affecting guitar, that recalls Billy Bragg’s less-is-more playing.

Clive, his dad, was there, and so was his mum. “I didn’t know they were coming,” said Phil, promptly deciding to change his “emotional set-ender” to his “emotional opening number”. “This song is about my mum. It’s called My Mother,” he said, whereupon mum raised a knowing eyebrow.

Soon we learned she does better Sunday roasts than a Toby Carvery, she effing hates swearing and is no fan of tattoos either. Under Alex’s encouragement, Phil’s lyrics are coming on apace, matching his gift for melody, and built around a winning line in couplets and a desire to take the advice of The Streets’ Mike Skinner to always end with a memorable pay-off.

His hymn of praise to the lure of York’s welcoming arms, whenever he is away, is awaiting both completion and confirmation of its title – “it might be Angel Of The North,” he speculated – but already it is completely moving.

Alex and Phil had vowed never to return to the pieces they wrote in a day to perform to an audience that night, but promises are made to be broken, and so out came Home, the one with 14 houseplants acquired by Phil’s girlfriend Angie for their cottage nest and Alex’s poetic “tatty clattering” as a home is found inside a house. “With you I’m two-up; I was one down on my own,” finished Phil. Mike Skinner would surely approve.

Phil Grainger and Alexander Flanagan Wright last August, when they mounted a week of The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre shows at At The Mill, by the 18th century corn mill. Picture: Charlotte Graham

After a pleasingly erratic stroll through Disney’s Can You Feel The Love Tonight, the acoustic set concluded with two of Phil’s finest, Little Red and Colour Me In: one pulling at the frayed edges of a disintegrating relationship; the other, from Phil and Alex’s show Orpheus, a ballad that would fit perfectly on Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour on BBC 6Music. “I’m drunk on colour and I’m drunk on soul,” Phil sang, and how we drunk it in.

Electricity was thankfully restricted to Phil’s switch of guitar and not lightning for the second half, introduced by storyteller Phil with his recollection of trying to pay the £600 required for the instrument in £2 coins gathered over time ten years ago. Bank the coins, he was told, but eventually the guitar was his.

A decade later, he finally chanced his arm at a guitar solo in Safe Travels, Hurry Back, words by Alex, title and soar-away tune by Phil. The solo? Grainger’s transition into Jimi Hendrix is on hold.

Best title of the night award went to Hallelujah For The Hell Of It, best couplet to: “I’m hard to read like a broadsheet; you’re hard to keep like the off-beat”.

That made it back from Australia in February 2020, as did another Alex and Phil composition, If Destroyed Still True, written late into the night after their last supper before the urgent flight home, this one composed with Aussie friend Jamie on laptop.

“Just to be clear, we’ve never done this one live, since we wrote it in an hour that night,” said Alex, duly doing his Kae Tempest-style spoken words live, interwoven with Phil’s yearning vocal part and Jamie’s infectious recorded instrumental refrain.

One-man band and his bandana: Phil Grainger performing his Clive show. Picture: Fair Dinkum Film

It could have gone wrong at any moment, instead it went beautifully right, and it is in such unpredictable, knife-edge moments that Summer At The Mill is creating its distinctive alchemy.

Do check out the Aussie video at: facebook.com/orpheuseurydicethegods/videos/2254587891515753; the chorus will be your new earworm within minutes.

The Little Mermaid’s Under The Sea survived its Big Phil DIY – Does It Yorkshire – reinvention, and then it was time for Phil to revisit the “wise and gorgeous” recording of Easingwold Players’ stalwart Bronwyn Jennison, who passed away last year.

It had been a highlight of last summer’s Clive show and now, reactivated for the first time since then, Bronwyn’s rendition of Alex’s words had even greater weight after the year we’ve all had. “You carry on, wild child, and I’ll carry on,” said Bronwen through the ether, and Phil and Alex will indeed carry that flame.

Phil’s finale was a humdinger: an audience hum-along to the anything but humdrum Hum, “another song we said we’d never do again, but it’s too special not to!”.

Last August’s review ended with a call to Phil to record an album, and indeed the Half Man Half Bull download has since emerged, but that is a team creation, not the full Phil, and so, Phil, even more than last year, please head into the recording studio. Your mother, for one, would be chuffed.

“I’m so glad I could be here to sing to the benches I made,” he signed off. So we were, so we were.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

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 off 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 too much here 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.

Garden of delights as Alex and Phil stage Orpheus, Eurydice and more at the mill

Definitely not Yorkshire: Alexander Flanagan-Wright and Phil Grainger, when taking Orpheus to the other side of the world. Now they will stage it in Alexander’s back garden near York

ALEXANDER Flanagan-Wright and Phil Grainger are heading home with their I’ll Try And See You Sometimes art attack for lockdown-eased times.

This summer’s already Hyper Local Tour of their international touring show Orpheus will become even more hyper local for “six days of work” in Alex’s back garden at Stillington Mill, Stillington, north of York.

The one with the mill pond and wooded backdrop, now with social-distancing measures in place for Covid-secure At The Mill shows from August 2 to 7 to a maximum audience of 30 per 7pm show.

“We’re doing some Orpheus, some Eurydice, and one night of New Stuff We Haven’t Done Before,” say the duo.

York theatre-makers Alexander Flanagan-Wright and Phil Grainger take the applause after a performance of their international hit Orpheus. Picture: Hartstone Kitney

Presented by York theatre makers Alex and Phil’s companies, The Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre, the duo will stage:

Sunday, August 2: Orpheus, £12;

Monday, August 3: Eurydice, Orpheus’s sister show, £12;

Tuesday, August 4: Either Orpheus or Eurydice, decided via an Instagram poll, £12;

Wednesday, August 5: New work from Alex and Phil, a reading of This Story Is For You and a gig by Clive (Phil’s name for his solo music, Clive being his middle name and his father’s name). A new story from Alex, a new series of songs from Phil, £9;

Thursday, August 6: Double bill of Orpheus and Eurydice. Both shows, back to back, Orpheus first, £16.

Friday, August 7: Double bill of Orpheus and Eurydice. Both shows, back to back, Eurydice first, £16.

Hat, notebook, guitar: Tools of the trade for Alexander Flanagan-Wright and Phil Grainger when performing Orpheus

“All tickets types will show up when you book. Please select the correct price for whatever day/show you are booking,” say Alex and Phil. “It’s pretty obvious, it says on the ticket.

“There are only 30 tickets per event. We will lay out the seats each day depending on what group sizes have booked. However many tickets you book, we’ll lay out that many chairs for your group with a nice table in the garden, socially distanced from other groups.

“There won’t be a bar or refreshments, so feel free to bring your own drinks/ picnic along. There will be a wet-weather option, but it‘s not an indoor option, so if it‘s chilly, please do wrap up.”

To book tickets, go to: theflanagancollective.com/LiveShows.html.