Saturday, April 21, 2007

Sultan of strings

Last night I took a trip over to Halifax, prompted by Tom Paine's visit to the Albert Hall at Easter. He travelled 1,500 miles, my journey was more like fifteen.

I didn't get to see Show of Hands but I did join 100 or so others to see half of them (or more accurately, two thirds), Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes. (There was a third musician, Jackie Oates who opened the show and was joined by Phil Beer later on).

Phil is a hugely talented fiddle player and he managed to turn his hand to several other strung instruments as will, including a Ukelele with an interesting history. He is very relaxed and amiable both on-stage and off. As well as mainstream folk, he also sang blues, some Little Feat (the celebrated trucking song, Willin'), Billy Joel and even some Tom Lehrer. Later on, with Miranda, they did a splendid version of Still Crazy after all these years.

Miranda was a surprise- I knew she had striking red hair but I didn't expect it to be dyed and spiky- what we used to call "Chunky Punky" in Coventry in the 70s. We didn't see her other than when she was onstage, whereas Phil and Jackie were at the merchandise table afterwards.

The venue was the Square Chapel centre for the arts, a building that I had seen numerous times whilst working in Halifax but knew little about. It is what the theatrical sector call a 'found' space, not a theatre but used successfully as one. The chapel dates back to 1772 and was unique in having massive (for the time) roof spans. (Potted history here). I have never felt that churches make particularly good theatres, (although they are buildings for performance just as much as for worship) and square chapel is essentially a 60' square flat floor hall with pull-out tiered seating. The shock though, is the decoration- the place looks almost decrepid, with eroded plasterwork, exposed bricks and a missing ceiling. The reality, however, is that the building was seriously close to collapsing until in 1988 it was rescued by a trust, the elements kept out and gradually preserved.

As a studio space, it has a perimeter track with black stage drapes, however this evening they had chosen to expose the walls and windows. Consequently, we had a great view of Beacon Hill as dusk descended. The pilasters had been fully restored at the back of the stage but in various stages of arrested decay around the walls. Each wall had five bays with tall arched windows, the centre wider bay having a venetian window. On the side walls (the ones that supported the roof beams) an extra beam over the wider bay was supported by a massive rough stone lintel (with all the pick marks) , exposed after the weather washed away the lime plaster. An informative display in the stair lobby gave a good visual and textual background of the rise, fall and rise again.

Whilst reasonably equipped for sound and lighting, the building is somewhat of a compromise. (Multi-purpose rooms always are unless they have vast amounts of technology to alter the actor-audience relationship). There are two awkward staircases either side of the (notional) stage, the get-in is up an outside metal staircase (with a 90 degree bend), the toilets are inadequate for intervals, there is only one dressing room and the maximum building fire limit is 280 so the bigger the cast, the smaller the audience.

Having said that, it has a very pleasant downstairs bar, keen volunteer staff, a lively programme and ambitious plans for expansion.

...and what about the audience? Sorry Tom, they just seemed pretty ordinary to me, no sandals, not many beards, no "I'm a socialist" T shirts. I did briefly talk to someone who had been down at the Albert but he was just someone who liked Folk and wasn't political. Maybe my sensitivity radar isn't as highly sensitive as Toms, or perhaps the Guardian isn't as popular in Yorkshire.


James Higham said...

I read this with interest and am following your exploits, Ian.

Shades said...

James, your attention tends to result in exposure, although it is probably welcome.

I should add that the title "Sultan of strings" isn't mine- it was in a Freebie mag called "Properganda".

Look at, visit downloads, it is issue five.