Kendal and the Miss of Cissypuff


We’re in the slightly smelly basement of The Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal, and between dressing rooms and stage there’s a poster display, parading some of the venue’s former glories. Shows (recent and distant) stapled-down, as a cautionary reminder to rabble-rousing young pretenders. I find an early-me on the wall – as Canute the King – clutching hold of the makeshift throne that we cobbled together out of skip-contents. It was an image that was appropriated for the otherwise excellent Brewery Festival of Visual Theatre ’93.

Although I’ve performed at the venue a couple of times since then, the mere mention of The Brewery brings a faint shudder. Back in ’93 Stan’s Cafe had made Canute the King, initially as a site-specific event for the magnificent Moseley Road Swimming Baths in Birmingham. With stacks of ambition and little to lose, we staged the show with a floating set, underwater scenes, slide-projections onto the rippling surface, operatic singing, and a harmonica playing jester. It was horrendously difficult realisation, but we somehow pulled it off, garnering a large amount of respect in the process. (see pics) Subsequent to the touring of the scaled-down (2-performer, paddling pool version) we jumped at Anne Pierson’s request for a site-sensitive presentation of the show in Kendal – to which we would also add the live voices of (composer) Richard Chew and Cheryl Pickering.

We chose the ancient ruins of Kendal Castle as our site.

The Kendal Canute was set for the very end of May 1993. Two days beforehand, we were all getting lashed in the Kingdom of Fife at the lovely wedding of our singers Rick and Cherie. We drove back down to Cumbria, probably feeling a little rough (maybe we even slept in the van with the gear) and started to build our Canute set in a semi-derelict vault of the old castle. Sounds promising enough but the lunacy commenced when we started to fill the giant water butt (borrowed from my parents house) and carry it the several hundred yards (poles and harness technique) to the top of the hill. This was an ordeal of Sisyphusian proportions. Back-breaking in the extreme, but as there was no water source at the top (the Castle seem to have had their water supplies cut off in the mid 1500’s) there was no alternative. The task seemed to take hours and was sapping all our energy, let alone our will.

The paddling pool was now wet at least, but very uneven and probably leaking slightly. We needed more water and time was fast slipping away. We knew we must turn our attentions to a more pressing task – the small business of deciding what the show would be. Amanda had by this point hot-footed it from her other show – Insomniac’s L’Ascensore (also in the Festival, but cleverly scheduled as to spare her any water-carrying), and Rick and Cherie were still en route in their Nuptia-wagon.

The elements were coming together but a sickening feeling in our stomachs told us that we’d perhaps bitten off more than we could chew.

There was a whiff of fear creeping in, but then an extraordinary thing happened….

It started raining. Really hard. We looked at each other and thought about all the kilo-joules of energy spent carting water uphill; pushing the proverbial boulder up the mound of Sisyphus. People of Kendal were starting to appear in a trickle up the hillside…from their jaunty strides you could tell they had high expectations.

We could try running away, I thought. If we started running now, they might never catch us. Ok, I’d have to explain the lost water butt to my dad, but then he was used to me losing things….

Then, miraculously, a messenger arrived (I want to say we got a call on a mobile – but we didn’t have one, so I can only presume it was a character on a horse with a pennant and a scroll) and told us that the Festival had decided to cancel the show because of bad weather. We all shook our heads and pretended to look very disappointed.

I remember running down the hill and in Canute-like fashion turning back the tide of audience, now approaching ever thicker. Making sure – just in case the weather improved…which it did 20 mins later.

We’ll never know – maybe Canute in the Castle would’ve been a triumph. Near myth or near miss? Its legend certainly lives on.


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