The price of connection

By Maddy Costa

In the weeks before I saw Feral in Poole, a voice of suspicion grumbled deep inside me that the project was an unjustifiable extravagance. Feral is a show by a Scottish company, Tortoise in a Nutshell, that was a hit at the Edinburgh fringe in 2013, winning a Fringe First and a Total Theatre award. It tells the story of a humble seaside town destroyed by ineffectual local politics and voracious capitalism, using puppetry to create a live-action film projected on to a screen at the back of the stage. There are two seaside towns participating in NTiYN, so Fuel wondered: what might Feral look like if it were set somewhere not generic but specific? What if, while keeping within the realms of fiction, it reflected a community back to itself?

This is how a chunk of NTiYN money came to be devoted to remaking Feral for Margate and Poole. Fuel funded two week-long research trips, during which members of the company would meet with local councillors and other public figures, chat to shop-owners, wander the streets and get a feel for each place. The set for the show, and a host of peripheral figures, would then be individually remodelled to suggest real-life places and faces in each town. Which is great, except that Feral in Margate was scheduled for only two performances, Feral in Poole just one. Even Ross MacKay, the company’s artistic director, felt that the work and resources were disproportionate to the number of shows.

Was the expenditure of time and money worth it? I can only judge by what I saw in Poole, where even asking the question made me feel kind of ashamed. The Lighthouse Studio was busy and bustling with anticipation; as soon as the company unveiled the centrepiece of the set, a shabby shopping centre named, in honour of Poole’s Dolphin Centre, the Porpoise, people in the audience became audible in their appreciation. There were giggles at shops whose names were slight variations on local High Street landmarks, and snorts of recognition at the exasperation of townspeople stuck at the level crossing. I had my own moment of delight at the appearance of the local councillor: I’d met one with Ross on a day’s visit to the Poole research week, a formidable and dedicated woman who had fought long, tenacious campaigns on behalf of women who had experienced domestic violence and girls subjected to genital mutilation, who startled Ross and myself when she announced that she was inspired to enter politics by the example of her hero, Margaret Thatcher. Sure enough, the tiny puppet councillor of Poole looked nothing like her real-life counterpart – and instead was a miniature model of the Iron Lady, right down to the handbag.

Afterwards I sat down with some of those audience members for a theatre club and played devil’s advocate: did it really make such a difference, Feral being set in Poole? They couldn’t have been more emphatic in their answer: yes, absolutely yes. It wasn’t just the pleasure of seeing the town’s idiosyncrasies (the obsession with pirates, the lack of a local newspaper) noted and incorporated; there was something deeper and more political than that. They experienced in brief and microcosm the destruction of their locale: a place that frustrates them, but that they care for and want to see thrive. In the show, the town is blighted by the introduction of a casino: there’s been talk of that happening here for years, said one woman, and Feral reminded her how vital it was actively to oppose it. Poole can feel quite placid and ineffectual, suggested another woman; it was inspiring to see the community rally around at the end of the story, to see how we look out for each other. For one of the men, it was a strong argument for how much this community needs art: stories and activities that bring the community together, and get them feeling and thinking.

A question that fascinated me was what it would take for the social inequality shoved under the carpet in Poole to spark riots, like those in the show. What might be the tipping point? Many suggested that it would never happen – but that that was no excuse for complacency. One of the people at the theatre club works locally as a producer of live performance and events; for her, Feral in Poole was a call to arms, not to riot, but to create a more active, more vibrant local arts community, one that is inclusive and addresses those social inequalities, that offers free access to art and makes it integral to everyone’s lives.

Questions about value adhere to theatre so vigorously, they come to seem inevitable, natural even: like limpets clinging to rock. But this night in Poole watching Feral speak directly to its audience, and chatting with that audience afterwards, reminded me that the value questions can also be irrelevant. There is a level at which a show that invigorates its audience with a sense of purpose and community spirit is actually priceless. A level at which, injecting money into a touring show to make it not generic but specific shouldn’t be a one-off extravagance but sustainable, standard practice.

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A good night out with Feral

A note from Maddy Costa: this review is by Lucas Murray, a visually impaired kid and keen photographer who first came across Feral in Poole when his family spotted posters for the show in the local shopping centre. Fuel had also arranged for Harry Webb, Poole’s local engagement specialist, to spend some time on the High St speaking to people about the show – which is how Lucas found out about the competition #mypoole, to make a one-minute film about the area. Lucas entered and was a brilliant finalist (you can see his film here). But he also got to have a very particular experience with the show, which is where he picks up the story. A longer version of this piece appears on Lucas’ blog, here.

By Lucas Murray

I emailed Fuel to ask for a touch tour which is when you get to go on stage before the show, and feel the set and meet the cast, because I would get a better idea of the story when I’m watching the show. They liked the idea of doing one because they had never done one before and they replied saying: “Can you come at 7.10?” We decided to dress up smart for the occasion so I wore shirt and tie and man’s perfume.

We were met by Hattie and Harry from Fuel who showed us into the studio to start the touch tour. I liked Jim the sound editor from Tortoise in a Nutshell (the theatre company) talking me through all the different sounds that are used in the show and the way he changed the pitch of his voice made me laugh! I got to feel the puppets which were made from a clay called Sculpey and when I was holding the Dawn puppet, I could move her head and pretend that she was writing something by moving the stick that was attached to her hand. The buildings were made from thick cardboard and the whole set was black and white. Lots of shops had their names changed so Lush was called Loosh, Bennets the ‘Bonnets’ Bakers was called Bonnets, the Dolphin Centre was called the Porpoise Centre. I liked learning how the different video cameras worked and how the guy used them to follow the puppets so that the pictures could be shown on the big screen. It was the first Touch tour they had ever done and I thought they were really good!

Then we went into the cinema where they were screening the finalists in the film competition. Mine was the very first film to be shown, and it felt really exciting to see it on a huge screen. After my film, the other people in the audience clapped and I felt proud. The show had really good sounds. I particularly liked the train crossing, the till, the paper ripping and the sirens. The story was about Poole park closing and a casino being built in its place. All the shops had closed and the people of Poole were very unhappy and then they were rioting. I was a bit upset that everything was destroyed. It was a very happy ending though as the Poole people started to make it look very nice again and worked together and the casino had completely closed down and all the shops had reopened. After the show, we got to come down on to the stage and take photos of the set.

[Here are some of Lucas’:]

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