Mikron Theatre Company
Scarcroft Allotments, York
Mikron Theatre is a long-established touring company with a reputation for developing new writers and a penchant for jumping on their barge and touring venues that don’t usually see much in the way of performance.
Their latest show, one of two on their 2016 summer tour, is a case in point: they’re taking Pure to museums, pubs, and village greens up and down the country, and they’ve just left the glorious sunshine of an allotment in York.
The same ensemble of four performs in both of their current shows, and all are talented singers and multi-instrumentalists. Richard Vergette’s script promises to explore "the business of chocolate", and introduces us to a range of characters in the fictional (but definitely familiar) Plumstead’s Chocolate company.
The narrative shifts between the present-day concerns of the company and its Victorian roots. In the present, the smiling, free-flowing, cliché-spouting marketing executive Steve Durant (James McLean) has been brought in by the company’s new American owners to revamp the brand. This is much to the dismay of down-to-earth Northern lass Fay Smith (Claire Burns) and stuttering upper-class chocolatier Tarquin Sebastopol (Matt Jopling).
Completing the contemporary foursome is Stephanie Hackett’s Theresa, a somewhat hapless consultant with a broad Yorkshire accent and a clear crush on Durant.
It’s a fairly schematic set of oppositions and attractions which leaves you in little doubt how the story will develop, but it’s all written, performed and directed (by Stefan Escreet) with enough humour and gusto to win over the audience from the outset. Rebekah Hughes’s music is similarly bright and inventive.
The opening number inveighs against the healthy-eating "gloomy brigade" who’d instruct us: "never eat chocolate, never drink beer". It’s a witty and gently subversive comic piece which ironises its own position and the tendency of marketeers to idealise the glorious past in selling supposedly traditional products.
This theme continues throughout the piece, which moves cleverly between two time zones to touch on some of the grimmer sides of the chocolate industry, as well as introducing the Quaker movement’s role in its development.
As the romantic and business entanglements unfold, all four of the cast members have the chance to showcase a wide range of accents and musical talents, as well as a sound line in comic timing and delivery. Matt Jopling is for me the stand-out here, playing guitar beautifully in a range of styles and distinguishing his roles through interesting physicalities and vocal tics. But all four are strong and immensely likeable performers with the ability to captivate the audience.
It is also enormously commendable that the show manages to take the traditionally sunny Mikron musical format and incorporate elements relating to poor working conditions both here and in the exploited (former) colonies, the exploitation of workers and dubious corporate takeovers. In a week which has seen management practices in BHS and Sports Direct under intense scrutiny, this piece feels timelier, and has more bite, than last year’s One of Each.
Cheers greet one mention of resisting the takeover by the American company "Creation" (or should that be "Kreation"…?). And the importance of the Fair Trade movement in recent years is also a strong thread running through.
It’s still, ultimately, a light-hearted family show, and it still contains cheery music and humorously exaggerated characterisation. The ending can’t avoid conceding to a classically implausible happy resolution. But the writer doesn’t shy away from mentioning the dilemmas faced by would-be ethical shoppers and chocolate-eaters.
Not for nothing does the publicity image show James McLean in Victorian garb sporting a smile which could be read either as an enthusiastic celebration of chocolate or as the somewhat more ominous pantomime grimace of an exploitative factory-owner.
Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith