2022 sees Mikron Theatre Company celebrate their 50th Anniversary, and what better way to get things rolling than by reviving the 2015 production of Raising Agents, a play marking 100 years of the W.I.
The company specialise in performing in venues not normally associated with theatre, although Holbeck W.M.C. is no stranger to putting on shows, being the home of Slung Low. Mikron are most noted, however, for being based on a narrow boat moored in Marsden near Huddersfield which they sail around the waterways of Britain during the summer, stopping to perform either by the canal or at venues very close to it. I have been invited to the 50th Anniversary Show, Red Sky At Night, next month so will write more on their history then. Try to control your excitement.
Anyway, back at the club, I arrived unfashionably early, as is my want, and was told by an extremely pleasant woman that the concert room was not yet open but the bar was, so I decided to partake of a pint of hand-pulled ale before the show. I had just deposited a handful of peanuts into my ample gob – I do like to dine out on a Saturday night – when I was approached by two of the cast members from the show, Alice McKenna and James McLean, bearing a goody bag containing literature pertaining to the company and a container of hand sanitiser, which I made a mental note not to mistake for gin on the bus home! The conversation was a bit one-sided as, when I ventured to speak I sandblasted the listener with dry roasted KP. I was also somewhat taken aback by the appearance of Mr McLean in long blonde wig, full make-up and dressed in a Mary Quant Mondrian pattern trouser suit. I have seen enough drag acts lately not to have been fazed, but it turns out that I had got the wrong end of the lipstick. When the show began it hit me that it was about Women’s Institutes and the company comprised two men and two women, so the chaps were in character for the evening, and a brilliant job they made of it too.
The set was small and sparse, as it needs to be if carried in the confined space of a narrow boat. It comprised the interior wall of a village hall with serving hatch which would unexpectedly open to reveal a cast member with sometimes a rabbit or trombone!
For any W.I. historians or really old people with a good memory, the first ever Women’s Institute was founded in Canada in 1897 by a formidable lady named Adelaide Hoodless. The British W.I. started life in Anglesey in 1915 so that is the relevant date.
The story of the organisation and its landmarks was told in a series of vignettes interjected into a theme of the decline of Bunnington W.I. whose membership has dwindled and so is in danger of having to wind-up. Penny (or it could be Jenny) played by Hannah Bainbridge, with whom I had a long chat before the show, is practising her speech on the history of the W.I. complete with recipe for rabbit pie, the very first dish made by the original Canadian Institute. Enter a Motivational Speaker, played by Alice McKenna, who asks to join, bringing with her her social media skills, ambition, and a promise to get Lucy Worsley to make presentation at a forthcoming meeting. Her new-fangled methods split the members; one wants to go with it and the other two prefer to keep things as they are. The schism becomes even more pronounced when she rebrands them as The Bunnington Bunnies, citing as precedent other successful branches who have given themselves upbeat names, such as The Scone Roses!
The retrospective episodes serve to show how the W.I. has influenced national policy-making over the century, no mean feat from an organisation which is apolitical, its only stance being one of pacifism as it was founded by Quakers. In 1922 there was a call for more public health education to combat sexually transmitted disease, 1939 saw them assist in the Evacuation Scheme. In 1950 a resolution was passed urging hospitals to allow parents to visit their children. A scheme for the reclamation and recycling of waste was put forward in 1974 – years before the word ‘up-cycling’ was coined.
Probably the most famous incident in the modern history of the W.I. was at their 2000 Triennial General Meeting when Prime Minister Tony Blair tried to turn his speech into a party political event and was given a slow hand clap.
At various points in each vignette and song, for it is a musical as well as a documentary and comedy, the next part of the rabbit pie recipe is read out, sometimes under difficult circumstances. Suffice it to say that all ends well, not only bringing a satisfying end to the show but beautifully illustrating the raison d’être of the Women’s Institute movement.
The acting and musicianship was superb all the way through, by the three aforementioned actors and Thomas Cotran, whom I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting, but who, like James McLean, had us forget that he was really a man, except in the odd meaningful look when cross-dressing got a mention. There are no microphones in the concert room so the technique was a bit exaggerated to help the audience hear, this was especially needed when a group of children decided to come upstairs to have a look – and a chat – from a party happening on the floor below. Fortunately they didn’t stay long and, hey, this is a WMC and a community hub designed to introduce people to the joys of live performance, not the Royal Opera House.
The script by Maeve Larkin was superbly conceived and written with plenty of wit and wisdom. Rachel Gee, the Director kept things a touch over the top, but on the right side of silly, whilst the songs written by O’Hooley and Tidow also had an ample supply of comedy, except for the odd poignant piece. The Musical Director and Arranger was Rebekah Hughes.
For more details on Mikron Theatre Company and a list of their 2022 dates, please go to https://www.mikron.org.uk/
Feature image provided by Mikron, all photographs by Stan Graham