If you recall where we left you last time, we were all saddened to be leaving Ludlow, but such was our love of the town and our time there that it was impossible for us to be too down-heartened. We had just finished a successful leg of the tour, and were looking forward to continue in such a blazing fashion. Today was the day we travelled to Barnstaple. The air was hot, and we had heavy bags and equipment on our bags and in our hands. But what did that matter, so long as everything stuck to plan…
Now, we all know the UK is rather small. Unlike our American cousins, it is hypothetically possible for somebody to travel from one end of the country to the other in a single day. With a complex link of train trains, motorways and walking paths, Great Britain finds one of its greatest assets in the cosiness between its many towns, villages and counties.
This can be both an asset and a hindrance. As we found out that morning. Tired and exhausted (and, lest we forget, sweaty; the kind of sweat one acquires from a tandem assault from carrying heavy bags through oppressive heat), we threw our bags down on the platform, only to discover that our train was delayed, possibly cancelled. We had a very precise circuit-like schedule for the day. If we did not reach Birmingham by a certain point, we would miss our coach. It looked as though that was the fate of the day.
The reason for this delay-then-cancelation was due to stolen cable lines, appropriated for their valuable copper. This wouldn’t have been quite so bitter a reason if the copper lines stolen hadn’t been in Reading. Reading. Miles away, on the other side of the country, wreaking havoc from coast to coast. (The smallness of this isle is a boon and burden.)
We managed to board another train and made our connection to Birmingham, though not without some difficulty. What with so many trains being cancelled, the train we needed to board was quite literally full when we arrived on the platform (each of us with lumbering rucksacks, tents and props). The conductor took a look at us and assured us that we weren’t getting on. We assured him that we needed to get on in order to make our coach on time. He looked at us, looked at the train- seats and isles filled like a compact sardines can- and looked back at us again. He smirked. “Try your best.”
We got on. Spread across all the carriages, standing awkwardly with our bags between legs, this heaving, sweaty and irritable train reluctantly marched on. With each stop, two or three people got off whilst fifteen surprised and anxious passengers seemed to get on. And in doing so, all of us had to adjust in whatever space we could, whilst still trying to preserve the inch of wall one was luckily able to rest their head upon, or that exact position where the draft from an open window met one’s tired red face. Eventually, there was not a foot of space left to be occupied. Entire isles were taken up, and for anybody to get off at any station was in itself a herculean challenge, given the number of people in any given carriage.
In this hot-house of annoyed and tired people, I was reminded and comforted by a line Bill Bryson wrote when he coincidentally was on a hellish journey to Barnstaple. “Someday, this will be twenty years ago.”
(Don’t worry, the group of boys on their way to a lads’ holiday- with beers in hands and their horrendous music blasting for the whole train to hear, whilst not offering any of their seats to the many older people in the carriage- seemed to be having a great time.)
Once off the train, we had to walk from Birmingham train station to bus station. To be honest, we were all glad of the chance to move our limbs once more, even with heavy equipment on our backs. We were like fatigued Hobbits. In Birmingham City Centre.
Tired and bored, we got on a coach and made our way to Barnstaple in a manner so uneventful and tedious it can only otherwise be described as ‘a coach trip that happened.’
Once off the coach, it was another short train ride to Barnstaple. We arrived in rain, more tired and weary as ever, and trudged our way to our new home. Our host- Nicola- kindly greeted us on the way and walked us to her marvellously large and elegant home. Nicola works for Barnstaple Fringe, carrying out an array of duties, but surely her biggest challenge was having to put up with nine flamboyant actors in her loft for six days.
Unlike our last digs, where we had had a whole building to ourselves, in Barnstaple we had a whole room to ourselves. A loft, more accurately. Directly above the owners of said room. Now it speaks volumes of the nature and size of the house when I say that the loft was of such a size as to accurately comfortably fit all nine of us in. We all managed to find a place to lie down without overlapping limbs. And so we knew that we were lucky. However, nine twenty year olds in a single room in a stranger’s house is always going to create what can kindly be called friction.
But, in all and total honesty, we were fine. It was a cramped environment, and an odd one (reminiscent of childhood sleepover, only with more intrusive snoring), but we managed to get out of there without any arguments. Which speaks volumes.
(Also, the house had cats. Three cats. Three really cute, adorable cats. So that helped.)
Barnstaple Fringe is known as the Friendly Fringe. It’s easy to see why. On our first day, we went to a local café where several of the acts were presenting their shows, and we got to meet them afterwards and it was true; everyone was just so welcoming and happy for us to be there. This extended to everyone working in the Fringe, performing or not. Barnstaple isn’t a huge place, so an annual festival like this is so important, and proof of the good they can do for small towns.
Just some of the names performing were Witch by Circle of Spears, a three-person show based on historical accounts of accusations of witchcraft; Nature Knows Best by TicTac Theatre, about the relationship between humans and the natural world, and Square by The Monday Collective, a show asking the question: what sort of a shape is a square, really? Theatre tackling society’s most thorny issues.
Wood was performing atop a castle mound. A small, wooded hill whereupon one had to follow a winding series of steps to reach its flat, grassy top. We remarked how it would be perfect for a Midsummer Night’s Dream performance. Or indeed, a semi-immersive show about camping. It truly was a most magnificent spot.
However, it took us a little longer than expected to actually perform there. Heavy rain and wind forced us indoors on our opening night, but we were offered a space in the indoor market, bustling with commercial activity just a few hours earlier, now empty. It was a grand and long space, with Union flags hanging from the ceiling on both sides every foot for as long as the entire market. In such a space, our lines and shouts echoed with a chilling omnipresence. It certainly wasn’t the play’s intended space, but I think it worked.
The rest of the nights we performed atop the castle mound. On our final performance, the weather was actually sunny- after several days of ambivalent clouds and light rain.
But it wasn’t all work. One night, we made a makeshift sofa in the loft and watched Hot Fuzz, a film that a few of the cast had never seen and, after Brexit and Trump White House, actually seemed ominously relevant and foretelling. (If that seems hyperbolic, it’s because it is. But still, watch the film again. It’s a different film now.)
Another night we patronised Barnstaple’s only club Fever & Boutique, which Oli lovingly referred to as “Fever Booty”, usually in a caressing whisper. I don’t want to say that Barnstaple is small, but I recognised a few of the people in there.
Barnstaple is not the most exciting town, but it is probably the friendliest we’ve been to. Its people, not just from the Fringe, were happy we were there. They were engaging and interested, and took the time to discuss the show with us when we flyered on the street. We left, thinking that the castle mound was probably the most apt location we’ve performed in thus far, and how much small towns, much like the one I and several other cast members come from, benefit from amateur theatre.
(Even those with the line “I want you inside me” in them.)