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
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links
    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing