Blood + Chocolate

Mike Kenny
Pilot Theatre, Slung Low and York Theatre Royal
The streets of York (starting at York Theatre Royal)

Blood + Chocolate Credit: John Saunders
Blood + Chocolate - Anthony Harrison as Fred and Luke Adamson as George Credit: Nick Ansell
Blood + Chocolate - Emma Gibson as Britannia Credit: Dan Cashdan

The whole run of this ambitious promenade production through the streets and snickleways of York is now sold out, testament to the sense of event and anticipation which surrounds it.

Drawing on the success of last summer’s Mystery Plays, with community involvement on a mind-boggling scale again capably coordinated by producer Liam Evans-Ford, the show sheds light on stories of York men and women as the First World War takes its course.

To say too much about the settings, the imagery or the venues through which the production passes would deprive audience members of a large element of their enjoyment, as the sense of mystery and wonder at just where we will be taken and what the production will come up with next drives the performance from one striking set-piece to another.

The audience dons headphones and a radio pack, through which the voices of the mic’ed performers are brought at times startlingly close. These are mixed adeptly with an ever-present backdrop of suitably filmic and sweeping music, composed by Heather Fenoughty with sound design by Matt Angove.

The opening sequence builds a palpable sense of excitement, with several moments genuinely sending shivers down the spine, and some stunning visuals (as throughout, the lighting and sound are spectacular). Then we’re off, following the stories of the York men who went to war and the women who stayed behind, many working in the chocolate factories. Most haunting, perhaps, is the strand tracing the fate of a conscientious objector, a committed Quaker who, despite concerns from his family and friends, refuses to be drawn into the violence of the war.

Throughout the performance, the community team of actor / stewards guides the hundreds of audience members capably and confidently, pulling off the incredible feat of shepherding such a large mass of people through the streets of York by night. They also direct the audience’s attention simply and straightforwardly, turning to point and watch as the next vignette unfolds.

Under Alan Lane’s direction, this cast of over 200 mostly non-professional performers is unbelievably well-drilled, and some of these central performances are as accomplished as the four professional actors on the project. The real thrill of the production, though, lies in its visual imagery, and the dazzling way that these stories are projected onto and through modern York. At times, the coups de théâtre dazzle with their beauty, ingenuity and sheer audacity. Anna Gooch’s inventive designs (and the familiar landmarks of York) are stunningly lit, playing with height and depth in narrow streets and wide open spaces.

Two caveats. It is a long performance for a promenade piece, and, though there is an interval of sorts with an opportunity temporarily to take a seat, the running time of two and a half hours should perhaps have been cut. Some of the material at the final location feels drawn out and, though it is churlish to complain of tired legs and a slightly sore back as stories of massive sacrifice and personal injury are played out, these sequences could have been more streamlined.

And the team will surely revise the very final moments, as at present the experience sadly ends on an anticlimactic note. After over two hours in which the direction so adeptly guided one’s attention and expectations in generating really awe-inspiring effects, to misjudge so awkwardly how to bring the audience back to reality is surprising. Likewise the one or two occasions on which direct reference is made to the headphones or when the audience is verbally instructed to move on feel like they break the already efficiently established idiom, by which we’ll happily follow the wardens’ wordless directions and ushering.

What are in fact minor flaws take on greater import given that the moment-by-moment experience is all. But the overwhelming (and I use the word deliberately) impression is of a massive community of performers, singers, stewards and technicians coming together, re-casting the streets of York in a thrilling and at times moving light.

For those lucky enough to have a ticket, this is not just a night of theatre but an experience which will resonate in the memory for a long time.

The production is sold out over the entire run, but Pilot Theatre Company will be live streaming the performance on Thursday 17 Oct at www.pilot-theatre.com.

Reviewer: Mark Smith