Reality bites

Two new shows blur the boundary between cast and audience. Lynne Walker on the rise of reality theatre

We're promenading between the hot frigidarium, the sweltering calidarium and the positively stifling laconium, eavesdropping on a world of intimate and feisty female chat. Only the cast gets to take the plunge into the pool.

In taking her admirable Harrogate Theatre production into Harrogate's hammams Hannah Chissick has created the hottest ticket in town. Since the play deals with the council's decision to close the baths because they are not profitable, it must be satisfying to Harrogate Borough Council that they found partnership with Scottish Life and the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore their ancient Hot Room Chambers in 2002. It is impossible not to feel involved when you are feeling, smelling and tasting the heat of the drama.

Putting theatre into alternative surroundings isn't new; nor is it peculiar to Yorkshire, although a recent theatre project, Mulgrave, in Mulgrave Woods near Whitby, took the audience on a four-mile journey accompanied by visual arts, music, and live performance. Companies on the Edinburgh Fringe have utilised a car, a curry house and a public toilet (though not necessarily on that order).

London has seen shows in operating theatres, dungeons and capsules on the London Eye. Lovers of Chaucer are experiencing his tales in a new light with a mile-long trek around Southwark. Groups of 100 hikers can brave treacherous terrain and ravenous midges on the isle of Skye to enjoy a twice-weekly son et lumière show on the Old Man of Storr.

Back in Yorkshire, another sort of reality is unfolding in Leeds, as three snapshots of a community through the ages are brought to life by members of the same community.

Once Upon a Quarry Hill, at the Quarry Theatre of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, delves into the history of the distinctive mound on which the theatre has stood since 1990, which is also home to the Leeds College of Music, the BBC and Quarry House - a government building of monolithic proportions straight out of Metropolis.

"It's always a partial building site," says the show's director, Steven Downs. "They're always pulling something down or putting something up and even while we've been rehearsing contractors' signs have gone up, announcing the building of a hotel and office block."

Once Upon a Quarry Hill reflects some of the site's colourful history, from its location for plague cabins during the 16th century to its rebirth as a smart Georgian spa in the late 18th century. Another aspect of the show is derived from the site's one-time location for back-to-back, terraced slum dwellings, housing exploited factory workers, and later for rather swish modernist flats, characterised by distinctive arches.

"The show ties in with our aspirations and how dreams change: it's really a metaphor for people's lives," says Downs, "based upon renewal and the cyclical nature of what happens on Quarry Hill."

A number of the 60-strong cast, ranging in age from four to 85, have learning difficulties and some have never appeared on stage before.

The journey begins in the 17th century, with Nellie, "the gutter slut of Swinegate", who is taken to the ducking stool in Spaw Well on Quarry Hill. Another strand involves Thomas Justice, a union activist fighting for workers' rights during the industrial revolution. The third tale is spun around the diaries of Slomo, a Jew who flees Nazi persecution and finds himself drawn into the life of his adopted city.

With so many rich pickings to be had from Quarry Hill and its "bones on stones", as Downs describes it, it's not surprising there is so much packed in, even without covering the area's entire history.

"Getting everyone in this hugely talented but incredibly varied cast to work together has been quite a job," admits Downs. "Just moving people round the stage, in and in and out of four different costumes several times in the show, is a challenge."

The cultural phenomenon of reality and site-specific shows still has plenty to offer, it seems, not least because of the lower than usual production costs and the greater impact such shows can make.

Harrogate's Steaming relies on the set of the Turkish Baths - exotic Arabic tiles, elaborate arched roofs, oak and mahogany changing rooms - and natural lighting. Once Upon a Quarry Hill draws on ordinary people to play characters they have created from their own cultural heritage.

Where reality television offers diminishing returns and is in questionable taste, reality theatre simply makes drama that little bit more real. And while the audience can't vote on individual elements, passive participation is a crucial element in this type of theatre.

'Once Upon a Quarry Hill', West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds 0113 213 7700) to 23 July. 'Steaming', Royal Baths, Assembly Rooms, Harrogate (01423 502116) to 30 July

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?