The Town Meeting
Cheviot Centre Wooler
This is a curious and adventurous piece. We, the audience in fact are the cast. No, that doesn’t imply a cynical cost-cutting device.
The play—if we can call such an oddball a ‘play’—is a town hall meeting where a smooth PR man comes to consult the local populace (us) on plans to redevelop the present iron ore mine, but bang in the town centre. This will necessitate the entire town being moved.
Each audience member is given an envelope which explains their own character—mine had spent five years of DIY work improving his property (yes, I’m afraid he was that boring). The idea is we all have a vested interest one way or another.
We are shown a Powerpoint presentation, various display boards are on view, including drawings by local schoolchildren illustrating the mining process and then the proposal is thrown open to discussion via a process known as ‘fishbowling’ only one of the ludicrous PR techniques we hear about. Gwilym Lawrence directs unfussily but effectively a piece whose nature almost guarantees a certain unpredictability.
What slowly becomes apparent—and this taps into people’s real fears about public inquiries and the like—is that, despite the proposed setting up of a Community Heritage Board, despite many people getting up to voice their views and the consultant's so-called desire for ‘nourishing and fruitful’ discussions, the whole process seems a façade and the result looks suspiciously pre-ordained. So are such meetings and processes merely cosmetic packaging?
These questions arise not via us watching a carefully written script, but from of our own responses over 90 minutes which, whatever we say, seem to lead to only one end result.
Brad McCormick is excellent as the PR Benjamin, side swiping all manner of brickbats while sheltering behind his meaningless jargon. He has to think on his feet constantly with a surface conviviality disguising a true cynical intent. Or is he himself merely a plaything in these power games? At the back of the hall sits a silent somewhat sinister figure called Paul, taking notes.
Cap-a-Pie based the piece on a real life story of a mining town in Sweden, (Kiruna) which was moved 3km west to allow local iron ore mining to continue. The theatre company is in partnership with Newcastle University seeing how drama can successfully link in with academic research.
And in fact the mysterious Paul, it transpires later, in real life is Dr Paul Cowie from the university, heading the research on how communities are, or are not, involved in such major decisions.
Stimulating stuff and the good folk of Wooler, a distinctive pleasant rural town in beautiful Northumberland, proved a feisty ‘cast’, engaging from the word go, whereas I suspect a less close-knit urban audience may be more inhibited. The next venue is Sheffield.
A couple of caveats. The town is a fictional one, Little Rikjord in Doggerland, but why not base the piece on whichever town it’s performed in? When asked to draw a map plus their favourite building from Little Rikjord, without exception the choices were from Wooler, suggesting there’s no place like home for adding a slice more realism to the artifice.
Also, possibly in preference to the somewhat remote concept of an iron ore mine in UK towns, the piece may achieve more contemporary clout if the proposal were for a fracking operation.
That said, this is happily nothing like your average night out in the theatre and even its performance—created mainly by its audience—seems capable of nurturing a strong community spirit.
Reviewer: Peter Mortimer