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Review of Fun Palaces 2016 at Royal & Derngate, Northampton

For those unaware of what Fun Palaces is all about (except fun of course), they are an idea born from an attempt in the sixties by Joan Littlewood and architect Cedric Price to bring a "laboratory of fun" that would travel from place to place bringing arts, ideas, creation and that key fun to different locations. It never happened. However in 2014, the idea was reborn and across the country in the first weekend of October, 130 places in the UK became a place of "Fun". The Royal & Derngate held one that very year which I attended and it was a day I spent eight hours in the theatre milling about, intrigued by what was going on. For 2016, mine and R&D's third year, I joined them again on both the Saturday and Sunday.

For 2016 there was no question that I had more fun than my previous two years. Indeed I had quickly regressed to childhood upon arrival, making a shadow puppet with the help of Lisa Shepherd of Imaginary Ordinary. Going rogue, shunning the templates provided, and creating an octopus (which didn't really work as a shadow puppet, and later departed for recycling heaven), and the next day a more spectacular "thing" which might have been intended as a monkey originally, but could also have been a measles cured Mr Blobby.


There was also over the weekend, origami to be experienced and I discovered that this little activity was a touch more than just a fold here and there. Led by the hand by event organiser Erica Martin, I did manage to create quite a spectacular frog. Ok, a frog.


On the Saturday, the Feast of Fools storytelling group, consisting of Richard York, Sue Martin and the busy Lisa Shepherd, were treating the eagle eared to stories generated from their Story machine. This looked a little like a rolled up piece of lino and a coal scuttle. However its looks belied its power and with the help of the visitors to the event, it generated a collection of stories that entertained throughout the day.

Other drop in activities included Chinese writing, henna patterns, drawing and rocket cars to keep a huge number of children and grown-up children happy for many hours.

As well as the drop ins, there were a number of bookable events to take part in and this year I experienced three of these which provided fours hours of entertainment and learning.

*

Singing Workshop

The most interesting decision that I made for Fun Palaces 2016, was to sign up for the singing workshop. Having kept my singing either private or in a gathering for a funeral before (and most of us leave that work to the vicar anyway, don't we?). This was quite a step into the unknown for me.

It turned out to be the best decision I made for the weekend, as it was a quite brilliant two hours or so of fun, that word again. It provided quite an eye opening experience of how group singing works, the breaking down to how the sopranos, altos, tenor, and the bass performed and more importantly what, was intriguing and truly fascinating. I have seen a lot of choirs over the years, more so since my theatre world expanded, and while amazed even then, following this workshop, I am without doubt so much more appreciative now of the work involved.

Our piece that we were working on was David Bowie's classic Space Oddity, and it was actually quite perfectly selected, as it had enough challenge to it, without being too much, and was also not too wordy to deal with in the time we had.

In that time we had, we managed to complete 34 bars of the 54 bar song, no small achievement, and had the pleasure of gathering outside the Royal Circle doors to perform in the presence of a busy, pre-show Chitty foyer. It was really amazing to be part of this on top of the workshop as well.

What did make this whole thing work though was our teacher of the day, Izy Sommerfield. A fun and enthusiastic teacher, relaxed and friendly, seemingly with instinct, knowing the perfect way to get things done. We were perfectly placed in the palm of her hands for that two hours, and were never under any pressure during that time. It helped us all learn at our own pace, from those like myself, absolute beginners, and onto those more experienced

It was a wonderful achievement by everyone to get as much as we did completed and an absolute joy to be part of. Quite a highlight of the year for me.

*

Fuel - Creative Writing

Underlines founder Antonia Roberts was our guide through this brief, but thought provoking 35 minute workshop condensed from her own companies workshops. They offered little snippets where quickly the participants had to come together with locales, ideas of what lived there, what they smelt like and what might be happening there. Then swiftly onto completing headlines with selected blank spaces, and then quickly to another blackout form, this of blackout poetry.

It was all fast paced to cram so much into a short time frame, however it still stirred a number of ideas from those present and also myself. I left clutching an idea titled "Theatopia" which is destined to become something in the future, I am sure.

It was a little difficult for myself to become successfully integrated into a group for this one, as every other member of the workshop were from the University Of Northampton, so for the best part, I went it alone on my table, only offering my group the headline "Trapped in a refrigerator for seven years".

The techniques offered to us from Antonia worked and I think in a more select group of people could be used extremely well. Despite not ever having heard of blackout poetry before, this was inparticular an intriguing idea which with more time to work with could have some interesting results.

A very interesting workshop, only slightly less successful for me, due to the close knit group that I experienced it through.

*

The Adventure Begins

Querencia Theatre's The Adventure Begins was the only piece of written drama at this year's Fun Palaces and it was a rollercoaster of fun from beginning to end.

Created by the companies founders, University of Northampton graduates Julia Nolan and Jack Smith, it took Sophie (Julia Nolan) and us on an adventure to bring her withered and poorly plant back to life. Our journey not only took us on this adventure, but for the children present, there was a lot of gently structured education going on.

There was as to be expected a great deal of interaction in this children's show as the juniors were encouraged to get involved on a number of opportunities. Also children cannot always be trusted to not get move involved than they should, so snowball fights got out of hand, switched plants were spotted and outed publicly, and an interesting allegiance between support for a sinister snake (Jack Smith) and Sophie was created within the audience. This generation seemingly were mostly keen on Sophie being captured, with seemingly just one distraught youngster on her side and desperate to get snaky going in the other direction.

This wasn't just for the children either as adults had their chance as well to become part of the action at times, however I am sure my gangly form becoming part of a shoal of fish looked slightly alarming surrounding the three to four foot fishes. Grown-ups were also encouraged into the snow ball fight as well, but never thankfully got quite as violent as the children about it.


Julia and Jack provide an excellent double act, bouncing off one another in a sparky way, no matter which of the several characters that Jack embodies during the show. My favourite had to be his cockney penguin with a exaggerated and perfected shuffle. Julia was perfect as the wide-eyed girl, full of fun and wonder as her journey evolved. The pair also harnessed their physical skills honed from their university course to great effect as Sophie was tossed around as their ship was hit by the storm.

The set was also excellently constructed, taking the origami theme that was happening at a table outside and creating a world of cacti, sea and the most wonderfully constructed forest. It was the perfect creation for a children's show.

A really entertaining hour of educational drama that allowed a huge amount of interaction from the audience and did the most challenging thing of keeping children entertained tremendously well. As for the adults, yes, we had fun as well, often by just witnessing the joy and wonder through the eyes of the young people present.

*

Fun Palaces really is a great enterprise and this year the Royal & Derngate provided the best year of events yet, allowing people to experience many things they probably haven't before. Well done to absolutely everyone involved and roll on next year!

For details about the Fun Palaces go to their website at http://funpalaces.co.uk/
Date attended: 1st & 2nd October, 2016


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