The York of today is a tourist hub but at the turn of the last century it is was Chocolate City, churning out the sweet stuff by the ton. Now a new promenade production is looking at the impact of the Great War on the city’s workers.
Blood +Chocolate has been created by Leeds-based Slung Low who aim to take the audience not only on a trip back in time but round the cityscape.
“Blood + Chocolate is the story of regular citizens of York during the First World War – both the soldiers and the chocolate workers in the city,” says Slung Low artistic director Alan Lane. “Mike Kenny has written the script and he has created an epic, sprawling play that is staged throughout the city of York. As an audience you walk through the city for a good two hours, and it’s about a mile and a half from one end of town to the other.”
In a bold move, the production team put a call out for non-professional actors to join what they call the community company that will turn the show into a real spectacle.
“The project is about 180 people who are in the cast so every night they are the company,” says Lane. “They’re joined by four actors who we’ve worked with before who have been invited into the company, but everyone else is a volunteer who has given up their own time for the last six months to go through a training programme and will perform every night in the show. The really big challenge is that is so big so it is simple admin – talking to 180 people is very difficult so you have to shout loud!
“They have brought an unbelievable amount of talent and they are rehearing at a standard as good as anywhere in the land, you would be really hard pushed to see any quality difference as they are determined and dedicated as much as any other actor. I am endlessly inspired by the dedication and enthusiasm of this community company. I wouldn’t have taken a bet that there were 180 extraordinary actors in York if you’d asked me that question six months ago but you then realise, of course, there are.”
Most of the action takes place on the home front as women’s roles in straight-laced Post Victorian Britain are fundamentally changed by mass conscription for the war effort.
“The First World War was an interesting time for women because it was the first time where they were put into the jobs that were seen as man’s work. They found themselves in a completely different world and behaving in very different ways so for many people it was a type of freedom and chance to make the sort of money they hadn’t earned before.
“It was really traumatic and dramatic time for many women and half-way through the war a law passed that women over the age of 30 could vote so it was very turbulent time for women. Then after the war they got sent home to return to their domestic life which must have been incredibly disappointing which is one of threads of that comes up in Mike’s play.”
However, there will be a few nods to the carnage at the front where legions of young Yorkshiremen were cut down in a futile war.
Lane explains: “Some scenes are transported to the trenches, but what those men were doing over there was affecting the people at home. There is a story of one mother who has four sons, three of whom die, which leaves her mentally scarred, but we are mostly concentrating on how the horrors of the trenches were felt in York. I think there are very few people who think there is much positive to be found in the way that war was fought so I am hoping that in the show that people will see how heroic and inspirational the people are. There are many heroes in the First World War and this play is about their strength and tenacity.”
Slung Low always trys to do something different and in this show they are going for a unique mix of new technology and the ancient.
“The show take places the city, but you can’t stop the city doing what it wants to do, so we are using headphones,” Lane reveals. “All the performances are radio mic-ed so you will hearing the show much like a radio play, but one that is happening right in front of you. There is a rich sound and music soundscape so it means that you are in a bit of bubble so if someone is having a natter on the way home they won’t hear the show at all. Equally you won’t hear their conversation either, so it will be a very surreal stroll through the town.
“Everywhere you go in York is pretty much iconic and we go past the Minster plus other places we are keeping under wraps. You really can walk in any direction and hit something that is famous so we are framing some of the scenes in front of those iconic buildings which is great as it makes the production look very handsome.”
By Paul Clarke
Photos: John R Saunders
When: October 3 – October 20, 2013
More info: www.pilot-theatre.com or York Theatre Royal Box Office on 01904 623568