There’s a hugely exciting grassroots theatre scene in and around Leicester, with new venues, theatre companies and festivals adding their own fresh ideas to this melting pot of creative endeavour. We caught up with three members of Fishhouse Theatre, Alison Dunne, Lesley Emery and Kirsty Mealing in rehearsal for their newest work Bonemill, to be premiered at Attenborough Arts along with Cat Got My Tongue (I Hope It Comes Back), and Being Julie Andrews, before they head to Buxton Fringe Festival.
Fishhouse Theatre came into being in 2016. Alison formed Fishhouse due to “a very strong feeling that women were not represented as much as I wanted them to be, and particularly older women. The impetus behind it was to make theatre by and about women but that had a broad appeal, and that particularly created interesting and good roles for women, especially older women.”
A somewhat impromptu suggestion from Lesley to take a new play to Buxton Fringe Festival sparked Alison’s idea into life.
Lesley explains Alison’s response “Alison said: well actually I’ve got a play that I’ve been working on for quite a while for an older actress and a younger actress, would you like to see it? So I read it and thought: oh wow, this is amazing.” Things took off from there, and with a venue found and all other formalities taken care of Fishhouse had their first show, Cloaks.
Alison reflects on the pace of this process “I’d no idea what I was getting myself into at the time; I’d never been to Buxton Fringe Festival before, or knew that it is known as the third biggest fringe festival after Edinburgh and Brighton. My approach to life really is to say yes to things and then go “oh bloody hell, how am I going to do that?” I think that is a really good philosophy for life; so I just said yes. We’d got the play, we’d got the actors, we’d got the venue; we’d got everything sorted out.”
The festival experience was extremely positive; “We did 9 shows over 4 days and it was a word of mouth hit, it was packed out for every show. We were really lucky that we had Fringe Guru at our first show, who gave us a four star review. It was an exciting ride, and amazingly, we were nominated for two awards for best show and best new writing; I was completely bowled over by that. So we decided to go again this year.”
Having risen to the challenge of taking one show to Buxton Fringe in 2016, Fishhouse decided that they would take three shows in 2017. Again this came about through serendipitous means; Lesley picks up the story “when we went to Buxton last time, our stuff was stored in a room downstairs, it had a proscenium arch and we said wow this would be a perfect room to do a show in. Alison had another play that needed an older actress and a younger actress, we had a chat and said well Kirsty Mealing’s got a brilliant show, she should go with it to Buxton, and she’d be great for the young girl in Bonemill, Alison’s show. So I said that I’d better write a one woman show as well then; so we’d be three women, three plays, three days.”
Kirsty’s play Cat Got My Tongue (I Hope it Comes Back) was already in development, and the opportunity to team up with Fishhouse Theatre gave her the impetus to develop it into a full show. Kirsty explained the backstory and how she happened upon Charlie Chaplin. “In 2013 I did a show with Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company, for part of my research I had to look up movie stars from the silent era. There were some actors who didn’t make it from silent film to the talkies, I found that really interesting, partially because I’ve got a social anxiety disorder and sometimes, in social situations, I’d really struggle to talk, like my tongue wouldn’t let anything come out.”
“Essentially”, Kirsty explains, “it’s a girl who’s in a bar with her friends and she starts having a panic attack; she ends up hiding, and the whole thing is like an abstract story that comes out of her panic attack. She becomes a very familiar looking clown who can’t talk, the clown finds a microphone: it’s a conversation between the body and the voice, wanting to pair them together but not being able to.”
“I wanted the show to be non-triggering for people who have social anxiety. I also wanted to make sure that people watching it who were fine with their mental health and have no issue could just enjoy it as an abstract play and take what they need from it.”
Being Julie Andrews, Lesley describes as “basically autobiographical. I’ve had an interesting life, shall we say, there have been some ups and downs. I was brought up in the West Midlands equivalent to the Von Trapp Family because my family were all singers. So I’ve built it around the musicals that Julie Andrews was in; I say that it’s my journey from conception to motherhood.”
“There are songs in it, there’s laughter in it, and there’s some quite hard stuff in it, but it ends on a good note. I wanted to go to drama school when I was very little; my dad said I should get a proper job so I ended up as a lawyer. I’m now doing what I wanted to do all those years ago. It fits in with the ethos that Alison has for Fishhouse of women telling their stories but taking what may be difficult subjects and making it a show to watch that can make you laugh and make you cry.”
The third play is Alison’s Bonemill, in which Kirsty and Lesley both act. Alison sets the scene “It’s the story of two relatives who are thrust together in a circumstance where neither of them really want to be. Vi played by Lesley lives and works at the bonemill, the meat rendering plant, and Riley who’s played by Kirsty is sent to her aunt Vi to stay because there’s been trouble in the family. They are, on the face of it, very different but the play is really about them finding their common ground. I think I always write about grief and loss and love and all those big things, I can’t not do it; so those things are in there too.”
“Lesley’s characters costume choices are based on my own mother at the time. Because it’s set in the 80’s, which is the era of my growing up really it’s been a fantastic experience to go back and to be listening to all those songs and thinking about all those things.”
Lesley reflects, “I think what’s really interesting about the play is that, whilst it’s set in the 80’s, there are so many parallels with where we are today.” With Alison elaborating “All the stuff that we’ve got now with a long Tory rule and a female prime minister, there are so many parallels.”
On the bringing together of these three new plays under the Fishhouse Theatre roof, Alison feels that “the thing that has been really interesting is that they have echoes and movement between each other, the three plays relate to each other.”
The Fishhouse philosophy as they prepare to share these shows seems a very healthy one, with Lesley saying “It’s really scary but it’s really exciting and we’re just going to really enjoy it.” Alison follows up with “We really like working together; I think that’s really important. I think it’s really important to have trusting enjoyable working relationship.” Kirsty adds, “You don’t get enough out of the show otherwise, because if you’re in a comfortable place you can push the boundaries a bit more; so long as you’re not too comfortable, there needs to be some spice.”
You can see the Show Before We Go, featuring all three plays at Attenborough Arts on Friday 14th July, Tickets are available here.