Edinburgh Fringe 2011
"82,000 people, two McDonalds, one famous building society and the finest cloth hall in all England. Average rainfall: lots. Halifax." Here we have "A tale of friendship between two teenagers and their town" from Hot Ice Theatre.
Halifax was once a proud northern town, home to a hundred trades. These days it’s better known as a place for a good night out.
At the centre of the Industrial Revolution, its prosperity grew on the back of wool, weaving and chocolate. Far-sighted philanthropists provided housing and education for their workers and monuments to their vision appeared in the form of grand public buildings, most of which are still in use. All that you wanted and needed out of life could be found within the city boundaries. The community was everything. Roll forward to the 1980’s and the reality had become somewhat different.
Chucker and Mucker, two girls born on the same day as the Thatcher era dawned, become best mates by happenchance. From the top of Beacon Hill, they survey the place they call home but from quite opposite points of view. One is curious about how the city developed, why it is how it is and what’s beyond its boundaries. The other wonders why anyone would ever want to look outside Halifax for anything in life. One ends up a mother to four young children, never leaving the town she was born in. The other becomes an academic historian living far from the town of her birth. Their paths diverge to the point that they become unrecognisable to each other twenty years later. Choices. They rather determine where we each end up.
This is a both a funny and a poignant piece with an interesting undercurrent running through it : is it more important to know the place you’re going to, or where you’ve come from? Powerfully performed by writer Katharine Markwick and Susanna Hislop, the two actors play the myriad of characters and, occasionally, caricatures that make up the girls’ lives from toddlers to young and then mature adults. Both are as at ease in the childish conversations of the young girls as they are with the adult exchanges of their elders and, one presumes, betters. We touch on the snobbishness inherent in the socially aspirational and the pathos in the lives of others less ambitious or aware of the opportunities in front of them. We see that there can be fragility and vulnerability at the core of even the strongest of friendships.
The set is an ingenious mix of boxes decorated with glaring brand images of the time which are used to form everything from chairs, tables and other domestic furniture to Beacon Hill itself. And the use of costume is no less adroit. Their shell suits (so 1990’s) become props such as washing lines, blankets, shawls, a beer belly and many others.
The theme that life’s choices determine its eventual outcome has been well-mined by the playwrighting fraternity but there is an engaging innocence and simplicity in this piece. There is no pretentious dialogue, complicated allegories or deep metaphors to disentangle, just the simple premise that sometimes understanding where a place (and perhaps you yourself) has come from can actually shape its (and, by analogy, your) future. Any student of Halifax will know that it certainly did hit a nadir in the 1980’s and 1990’s when this piece is set, but that, with the vision of its inhabitants, has dragged itself up by its bootlaces and is once again a thriving and pleasant place to live and work.
Because that’s about as deep as the Mucker/Chucker analogy goes, The Historians is really accessible theatre and all the more enjoyable because of it. Perhaps one could be slightly critical of the maze of rather stereotypical northern characters that appeared and disappeared from the girls’ lives. And maybe the dialogue could have veered more towards the gritty when dealing with some of the more poignant and serious issues the youngsters faced. But that’s being picky, almost for the sake of it.
At a time when Britain’s youth is rattling its sabres again, this excellent piece from Hot Ice Theatre is sure to raise the profile of a part of our country that has a glorious past and perhaps has more future potential than would appear at first glance. As such, both The Historians and indeed Halifax itself are well worth a visit.