When it comes do describing what they do, members of Penny Plain Theatre Company are uncharacteristically lost for words. “Unique”, “funny” and “Victorian” spring most readily to mind. Or, as one enthused audience member declared after a show “Barking, but brilliant!”
The name ‘Penny Plain’ was chosen after the Victorian toy theatres which were sold as cut-out books ‘a penny plain or tuppence coloured’. Based in Grassington, a beautiful village in the Yorkshire Dales, we tour the country with our custom built version of a Victorian travelling theatre booth and, in the guise of “Hardcastle’s Mighty Excelsior Theatre Company”, show the misadventures and mishaps of a group of down and out players trying to stage some dramatic offerings.
It’s getting complicated already. Director Richard Emmitt explains: “We have to act on two levels. The actors have all taken on their own personae – the characters who make up the motley crew of has-beens. There’s Malvolio Hardcastle, the ineffectual proprietor with the perpetually worried expression, Tess Tiquelle, the diminutive and consumptive waif who’s usually weeping, and Oberon Kidneigh, the worst faded tragic actor you could ever meet…and so on. These characters then have to then take on the roles required by the play’s cast list.”
The company was formed when the organiser of a local arts event Grassington Festival, approached some local actors about doing some street theatre. Coincidentally the individuals concerned had been thinking along the same lines and wanted to tell the tale of Tom Lee, a local blacksmith who murdered the village doctor in 1742. The notorious Tom was eventually found guilty and hung after a few rather unsuccessful – and eminently farcical – attempts to hide the doctor’s body. Andrew Jackson, our writer, envisioned this being performed by a group of Victorian actors.
A group of talented local people were assembled, including some ex-professional actors, a retired opera singer and a former BBC set designer and we began the process of building the theatre from an old caravan chassis. Considerable historical research was undertaken to make the characters, the theatre and the costumes as authentic as possible.
Quite apart from the summer tour production, we also offer a seasonal miscellany of traditional folk carols, dance and mummery and an after-dinner entertainment piece “Professor Voam” provided for interactive light relief at any corporate or social event, where Goths meet Ghostbusters. Between times we train and hold workshops on voice, stage fighting and costume.
Most of the current members have a lifetime’s stage experience and are perfectionists. Andrew Jackson, one of the founders, writes the scripts and acts. He explains:
“It demands a lot from us. We are seen offstage as our personae, when we’re in method acting, naturalistic mode, and then we have to switch into and out of melodramatic mode on the stage.. The timing is crucial, and there’s a lot of knockabout stuff. Everyone is willing to muck in, slightly mad and above all, as we interact all the time with our audiences, able to improvise.”