For a storyteller there can be no greater challenge than to stand in front of your own community and tell their stories back to them.
There might be Oscars, Emmys and Oliviers dished out if you are this season’s national sizzle but earning a round of applause from your friends and neighbours for doing your job – you better have something good up your sleeve for that.
60 Miles by Road or Rail bravely took up this gauntlet with a project that culminated in a performance at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate describing the town’s recent history.
Using material gathered in interviews and workshops throughout Northampton director Andy Routledge has framed a compelling new story about this place.
It looks at the 50 years since Northampton was designated a new town and its breakneck expansion with the creation of the Eastern District and later on the Hunsbury developments.
Midway through the creative process the current county council was sucked into its own financial implosion, delivering a narrative arc the play’s creators could not ignore.
Central government foisted this new town role on Northampton (also Peterborough and Ipswich) and five decades later we appear to have a civic framework collapsing under the weight of its responsibilities.
The title of the piece 60 Miles by Road or Rail references the cheesy jingle composed to lure people and businesses into the array of new properties available during Northampton’s period of growth.
The story of it being made into a pop single is included along with a feast of other Northampton tales, some extended, others more like quips and clever in-jokes. There was a popular reference to the mechanical monkey that occupied a town centre shoe shop window for many years.
The company introduced themselves at the start with raw and personal stories that connect them to the town.
Jo Blake, Helen Crevel, Dan McGarry, Subika Anwar-Khan and Davin Eadie delivered an enormous amount of dialogue with the keen pressure of knowing many of the people who inspired it were sitting in front of them. They deftly skipped from humour to pathos and back throughout, conjuring many genuine belly laughs from the audience.
The moments that pleased most were when it felt like the stories they had gathered were coming through – including that introduction when the cast used themselves as material in solidarity with their subject matter.
A couple of popular songs feature and deep town Northamptonians might suggest that songs from a local legend like the late great Tom Hall would have slipped in another layer of authenticity.
Having said that, if anything symbolises Northampton’s low moments it is when the local and unique has been replaced by the homogenous and commercial.
The partially fictionalised connecting material which bore the burden of stringing the pearls together felt like it could be tightened up but let’s be fair, in theatrical terms this production has hurtled together in a remarkable way.
Less than a month before taking to the stage material was still being gathered. It is a new piece of drama that is referencing a very current political crisis in Northampton but also telling the town a new story about itself. It’s an amazingly dynamic achievement.
The project has a website which is open to continued sharing of Northampton stories but you can’t help feeling that 60 Miles by Road or Rail is so good it deserves to evolve a bit more and be seen a lot more. Who knows what may be possible. It turns out 60 Miles by Road or Rail is an incredible journey.