The canals are often hailed as the hidden gems of our towns and cities, hidden from the noisy traffic, one step away from carbuncular modernity. How else, then, to describe Mikron but as the hidden gem of British theater itself? Supposedly the only theater company in the world to tour on narrow boats, for 50 years this most dynamic of tour companies has brought shows to stopovers across the entire network of canals during the summer months, running their pleasure business with very little fanfare. .
Based in Marsden, Huddersfield, Mikron (pronounced as in Mick, not Mike; also in Greek for “mikros”) achieved some 34,000 hours of navigation on the waterways during its half-century. During this period, he presented more than 60 original plays by different playwrights. All shows feature songs performed by their small group of actor-musicians.
These are not stray luvvies, but hardworking crew members; living side by side, cooking, cleaning and driving as they move from lock to lock. Four actors is the norm, paying at least the Equity tourist tax. Fed over the course of their five-month canal tour by two eco-friendly diesel tanks, they are effectively singing for dinner. There is a minimum of funding from the Arts Council (£47,000 per year) but punters are asked to pay what they can at the end of each show, performed not on board but at venues close to the berth, town halls and subdivisions. for parks and garden areas outside pubs; the company makes an agreement with the relevant host in question, be it a publican or local authority, and also checks regularly with the Canal & River Trust.
The Mikron is estimated to have performed to over 430,000 people over the decades, though its mileage and range are also bolstered by van tours. The current tour takes in 140 locations. The pressing issue now is the indirect effect of the heat wave on water levels, but earlier this summer – in Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire – a regular work hazard emerged: an aggressive family of swans, nesting close to the boat.
Some stops offer strange bragging rights – since 2019, Mikron has been entertaining naturists at various locations while staying dressed. “The standing ovation at the end was just too much,” jokes artistic director Marianne McNamara, recalling her first encounter with this uninhibited community in Oxford. Last year, they played to an outdoor naturist audience in St Albans, one of the cast members boldly joining the audience after the show for a skinny dip.
It’s a rain or shine operation. This year, however, has been idyllic, and a group of tanned, happy faces greet me as I step aboard what appears to be the canal equivalent of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: a 72-foot-long, seven-foot-wide beauty called Tyseley.
Mike Lucas had no special experience when he had his “eureka” moment while shaving one day and decided to embark on a unique aquatic adventure, with his wife Sarah and their son Sam, initially a toddler, in tow. His fringe company had been created in 1963 and maintained on an ad hoc basis, but it has now found its raison d’être and, as Lucas, 81, reflects, it has endured because so many people have embraced the idea.
The first canal tour, in the fall of 1972, on the precursor ship to Tyseley, was thwarted by industrial action. Lucas, now living in Brittany, recalls: “The guards went on strike and we ended up stranded on the Grand Union Canal in Berkhamsted. But a Scotsman showed up in a van and promised to take us to every show – and that’s one of the things that would happen to Mikron all the time.”
The setbacks were dramatic in themselves. When the waterways were in ruins, there were several unpleasant discoveries, here an old mattress, there a dead dog; a cast member, appearing in a 1978 play called What a Way to Go, narrowly avoided getting stuck in a blocking paddle hole and drowned.
A sinking feeling also took hold when John Noakes filmed an episode of Go With Noakes with them, but it proved neither interested nor suitable for children. “The director told us to keep [Sam] away from him because he didn’t like children!”
There is less alcohol now than there used to be, but financial liquidity has often been a headache. McNamara, who joined as an actress in 2003 and took over Mikron in 2009, has had her work cut out to keep things afloat financially, though the company’s supporters are the manpower type when alarm bells ring.
“When we launch an appeal, letters come in the mail, containing checks and saying things like ‘You’ve given us beautiful memories.’ I remember being asked by the Arts Council, ‘Do you know your audience well?’ I said I know what their dogs are called, where they go on vacation, what kind of people they are.” This commonality is reciprocal; Lucas calculates that some families have been watching Mikron shows for three generations – “Those who came in 1972 now bring their grandchildren”.
We slide from Tring to the Rising Sun pub in Berkhamsted, although getting there is not without incident; at one point Tyseley crashes into another boat, destroying its rudder. But, as if by magic, a welder materializes on a boat behind, apologies are made, repair work is organized and paid for, and the vacationing couple in question later attend a performance, with no hard feelings.
“It’s a debut made in heaven,” enthuses Hannah Bainbridge, who has just graduated from drama school and dabbled with newcomer Alice McKenna, Thomas Cotran (in her sophomore year) and James McLean (a senior, back in for its sixth season). “I honestly can’t believe there’s a better job. You’re learning so many skills and it’s never the same show.”
Every interested candidate gets a phone call before their audition warning them of the pressures, but those pressures, all attest, make you a better actor. “It’s very demanding,” says Lucas. “You have to develop your projection and deal with all sorts of things – dogs sitting in the middle of the stage, a tractor starting to go into the harvest.”
Or, indeed, a Freddie Mercury costume party turning raucous in an adjacent space, something recently played out in Worcester. “They refused to settle down, so we had to speed up the show,” laughs McNamara. “I kept saying to the cast, ‘Cut that piece off’.” Looks like another barmy night to remember. Never mind killing for a ticket, if I were an actor or an A list or something else I would be killing to get my hands on the helm.
Mikron’s 2022 shows ‘Raising Agents’ and ‘Red Sky at Night’ tour until October 22; mikron.org.uk