Roundabout 2018

So I never got around to publishing my thoughts on what I saw on my last day of Edinburgh, but as it was very focused on the shows I saw as part of Paines Plough’s excellent 2018 tour I wanted to add it to the retrospective of working with such a great company.

Paines Plough have been going for over 40 years, and the Roundabout theatre has been in play since 2014  as part of their 40th anniversary. A completely unique, portable, “pop up” (kind of) space in the round – there’s nothing quite like a show in the Roundabout.

It’s difficult to express what makes the space so special. Yes, it could be the lighting – hundreds of individually programmable LEDs that make the space feel like a spaceship. Or maybe it’s how unassuming it looks from the outside – like half a golf ball (a bright yellow one as it was this year). It could be the vibe that the company builds, all hands on deck and full of warmth. Whatever it is, it all comes together to make an unforgettable theatrical experience.

We were lucky enough to have Roundabout land in Luton for the very end of their tour, right in the heart of town in St George’s Square. Luton is a town which is known for its “low engagement” as documented by Arts Council England. It’s also known as one of the few “plural” or super-diverse environments outside of London, the birthplace of notable fash troublemaker Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, AKA Tommy Robinson, and generally for not being such a great town, an opinion I rally against daily. I love the bones of this town. I love the people, I love the art that is made here (and there is a lot, despite perceptions). I love the fierce attitude and love and community spirit that brings us together. I’ve never been a part of a community that rallies as much as Luton, that fiercely protects its own like Luton, and makes art that has a sense of self that’s quite the same.

Having Roundabout here was a real joy for me, but one that needed to convince Luton audiences was of value. I spent a good amount of time on the streets around the town centre flyering and talking to people. Some were angry at what they saw as a waste of council money (the project was not funded by the council). Others thought it was a waste, that Luton is a “dead town” after the closure of factories and the building of the Mall. Some didn’t see the value of paying for arts when so much of what they see in the town centre is free.

Taking the time to talk to people changed many minds, though not all. However, we did see a huge number of new customers over the weekend and a real interest in what the theatre had to offer. All three of the Paines Plough touring shows gained a lot of praise, particularly the highly popular How to Spot an Alien which really captured the imagination of families throughout the town. I also had the opportunity to bring acts into the space who had never performed in it before, including Lemn Sissay, who delivered one of the most personal and beautiful performances I’ve ever seen him deliver.

At the end of the day, Roundabout aims to bring a new experience to communities that might not have had that experience before. Though I programmed in shows that I would be happy to programme into the Hat Factory when it re-opens, that space is still alien to many people in the town. We also tackled this with some direct ticket sponsorship, inviting in young carers, care leavers and young people with care needs into the space to enjoy shows for free. Roundabout did what it does best; started a conversation, invited people in, and gave people who might not feel that theatre is for them a first glimpse into the possibilities.

Here’s to more possibilities in the coming years x


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