I’ve known my friend Andrew for 22 years, and for most of that time he’s lived in Ingol in Preston, which ought to mean it’s the place I know best of all the NTiYN towns. Sadly, I’m quite a rubbish friend, so have relied on him visiting me in London, and haven’t returned the favour since 1999. So we were both really excited when I started working on this project at the prospect of seeing more of each other – even though he quickly confessed an element of cynicism about the work I would be doing. The New Continental has good music gigs, he told me, but isn’t really a place that attracts a theatre-going audience. And, he argued, the best thing about going to theatre is that it finishes early – no frantic dash for the last bus home – so why would anyone want to stay for a post-show discussion?
It’s taken a surprisingly long time, but on Friday night I finally had my first visit to Preston, and the Conti, for Fiction. It was a chilly night of squally showers, and as we made the 15-minute walk through winding back streets from the bus stop to the venue, Andrew and I feared the worst. Our journey was well over half an hour: who else was going to do that if they didn’t have to? In the dark and rain? And the Conti isn’t on the same side of town as students, making it even less likely that people would come. Let alone stay for the Theatre Club.
Settled into the pub’s lovely snug – with roaring fire! – Andrew and I got our first gratifying surprise: we discovered that the show was sold out. The capacity was 60 people – even if only a tenth stayed, I argued, that would still be enough for an interesting discussion. But at the end, everyone poured out of the theatre – and it seemed Andrew’s dire predictions were coming true. Except they weren’t. Everyone had disappeared to take advantage of the offer of a free drink for the discussion, and within a few minutes, people started coming back in. First two people, then five, then a whole crowd: we’d arranged the chairs into a big circle, but it just wasn’t big enough, and people crowded at the back so they could join in, too. In the end we had about 30 people, half the audience – one of the biggest theatre clubs I’ve ever led.
And it was brilliant. Fiction takes place in an astonishingly complete darkness, and lots of people talked about the insecurity that made them feel; one woman confessed that it induced a state of such panic that she’d had to leave. We talked about whether the makers take enough care over communicating just how dark it’s going to get, and the games that can be played with the imagination because of that darkness. We shared our different experiences of visualising the things described in the show, and how that was affected by the different qualities of the recording. We compared the extent to which the many invitations to fall asleep in the text of the show had affected our alertness; one woman talked fascinatingly of her experience of hypnosis, and how similar this had felt. We asked who had “understood” the show, and whether not understanding was frustrating, and enjoyed the way that the movement and content of the text is as surreal as a dream. One man actually said this was the best instance of surrealism in theatre he’d ever encountered. Apart from a brief moment of splitting into small noisy conversations, for most of the hour we talked as a single, albeit huge, group, listening attentively to each other, enjoying everyone else’s individual perspective.
As we travelled home, Andrew confessed he was amazed – and that his cynicism had been overturned. He’d not only really enjoyed the conversation, but the event had proven him wrong: people in Preston WOULD come to this sort of thing, AND have a brilliant time. This shift in his perspective showed me again what’s properly great about the NTiYN project: it can make people who’ve lived in a town for decades reconsider their relationship with it, and discover that it’s not what they thought it was. And it does this patiently, one person at a time.