Commonwealth Games inspire sport and theatre link-up

PERFORMERS and audience alike are taking to two wheels, writes Mark Fisher

Actors Alan McHugh and Simon Donaldson embark on a show with a difference on unique multi-purpose bikes. Pictures: John Devlin

The Commonwealth Games are still a couple of months away but the spirit of athleticism is already galvanising the world of theatre. Not only in the official Commonwealth Culture 2014 programme but also in outbursts of activity beyond, theatre makers are taking the idea of competitive sport and running with it. Some are also pedalling with it.

Among them is actor Tam Dean Burn who is currently in training for The Marathon Storytelling Cycle Challenge (14 June to 3 August), in which he will get on his bike to follow the Queen’s Baton Relay across Scotland, stopping off to read from all 184 of Julia Donaldson’s books and plays as he goes.

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By the time he finishes, the English company HandleBards will be cycling from venue to venue on the Scottish leg of its three-month UK tour of Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors (19 July to 10 August).

The four actors are carrying their eco-friendly set with them on their 2,000 mile trek, which will produce 45.6 tonnes fewer CO2 emissions than the same journey by car.

“Getting to see the amazing British countryside is also a huge benefit to cycling and performing in outdoor venues,” says tour manager Paul Moss. “I’m particularly excited about performing Macbeth on Dunsinane Hill, which might very well be one of this year’s highlights.”

But why stop with the actors being on bikes? Glasgow children’s theatre company Visible Fictions is taking to the parks of Scotland to stage The Spokesmen, a mobile comedy that a small audience of over-eights will follow on two wheels.

The company has got hold of 40 bikes and helmets of various sizes from Raleigh and will be showing up in popular spots such as Almondell Country Park in Livingston and the Cammo Estate in Edinburgh to perform the two-man comedy.

“All these wonderful memories of being on your bike as a kid come hurtling back,” says writer and director Douglas Irvine, who is loving the excuse to get on his own bike again. “That sense of freedom and the possibility that you can go on any adventure anywhere. It’s a freeing way to travel. Hopefully this show will get some other people back on their bikes again.”

In the promenade production, Alan McHugh and Simon Donaldson play two clown-like characters leading the audience on a guided tour of their local park. What starts out as a legitimate cycling tour takes an unexpected – and funny – turn as their relationship with their home turf turns out not to be all it seems.

Because no two parks are the same, Irvine has had to give the play a flexible structure, allowing the order of scenes to change even as the overarching narrative remains the same.

“We’ve had to create different endings for each scene depending on the order,” he says. “You want it to feel it belongs to this park – it’s important to be celebrating the place. If there’s something in the park that the company can refer to or respond to, that must and should happen. Every day it will be different and the two actors are just brilliant improvisers.”

There’ll be a pleasure, meanwhile, simply in following the show around. “We were concerned about how you maintain a narrative tension when you’re going from location to location,” he says. “But when we tried it, everyone said, ‘But Dougie, we just want to enjoy the cycle. You’ve taken us to a beautiful park, so let’s enjoy it.’”

Among the summer’s other shows on a sports theme are Tell Me What Giving Up Looks Like (Arches, Glasgow, 25 June), in which actor Robert Softley and athlete Joe Brown contemplate disability and sport; Endurance (Arches, Glasgow, 24–27 July), in which Catrin Evans looks at the changing role of women in competitive sport; and News Just In, a theatrical soap opera by Random Accomplice that will take place every night of the Games.

But first, after a marathon-level of co-ordination, Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre has commissioned more than a dozen writers to share their memories of school competitions for a theatrical anthology called Sports Day.

Leading lights including Davey Anderson, Peter Arnott, Lynda Radley, Alan McHugh, Linda McLean, Ian Pattison, Gary McNair, Johnny McKnight, Julia Taudevin, Liam Harkins, Nalini Chetty, John Kielty and Douglas Maxwell have provided mini plays to be performed by a 60-strong community cast. They’ll be led by professional actor Joyce Falconer as a school janitor on her leaving day after 25 years in the job.

“We’ve put the plays very broadly into a chronology,” says co-director Guy Hollands. “So there’s stuff about preparing for a sports day, about the staff who are in the midst of organising it very close to the day itself and then at the end are the actual races. There are also leftfield contributions: Daniel Jackson, for example, sent a beautiful two-pager about a man watching the school sports day from a distance and running a book on it, which is a brilliant idea.”

Unlike several of the playwrights he has commissioned, Hollands is a keen sportsman and a fierce advocate for the role of sport in education. “I have nothing but positive memories about sport, which was a big part of my upbringing,” he says. “I’ve always been a believer in the value of sport. It’s a hugely important thing for a lot of young people who may not be excelling in other areas. Sadly, it still doesn’t feel like sport has its proper place within the school system.”

Adding a few more layers to the production, he has commissioned five songs from a prestigious line-up of composers including Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines, Alun Woodward, formerly of The Delgados, and Jill O’Sullivan of Sparrow and the Workshop.

“Those songs have a wry, looking-back sense of not being able to do it very well,” laughs Hollands. “But the tone is light. We wanted this to be a celebratory event about what is an upbeat, positive happening in the lives of schools.”

Our prediction? This show will run and run.

• For more information on the Commonwealth Culture 2014 programme go to