With 4th July looming, I was thinking about the nature of independence. Yes, I know it’s not like me to be that deep, gentle reader, but bear with me. Generally speaking, I can see there may be two stages of independence – the first, breaking away from a position where you are dependent – like a grown-up child leaving home, or the United States no longer being one of our little colonies; the second, maintaining and generally being independent, like that grown-up child taking the responsibility for his own life (and any who become dependent on him), and the United States growing into the most significant country in the world. Or at least until it was taken over by China.
For the most part – not exclusively, because life isn’t like that – it strikes me that independent people, countries, businesses, institutions, and so on, thrive through being independent, rather than following someone else’s rules, making someone else richer, or living out someone else’s dream rather than one’s own. We all like to have our own identity, to create our own space, to apply our own intelligence to our own lives, to make the world a better place. Otherwise we might as well set up shop in Pyongyang.
There’s going to be a Love Northampton Fair at the Guildhall in the town centre on Saturday July 4th, (Independence Day – appropriately enough) to celebrate and promote the town’s independent businesses and traders. One might think this just means shops, or cafés and restaurants, or bars. And of course, such places play a huge role in creating the individual sculpture that is our beloved town, and I shall be thinking about some of those places in another blog in a day or two’s time. However, there is more to it than that. In the middle of Northampton you find the classily demarcated zone of the “Cultural Quarter”, an area where many of the arts come together to form a solid heart in what would otherwise be a commercial centre. For example, here you will find the amazing museum with its massive collection of boots and shoes – a testament to Northampton’s shoemaking heritage – and NN, the Northampton Contemporary Art Space at 9 Guildhall Road, the home of the Northampton Art Collective, moved on from its now non-existent previous premises in the Fishmarket, which just goes to show you can’t simply demolish the arts. We actually popped into the NN Café upstairs last Saturday lunchtime for a glass of Pimm’s and a light bite – hurrah to them for providing top quality gluten-free paninis!
However, in the local arts scene, you won’t find a finer example of independent trailblazing than with the Royal and Derngate Theatres and their fantastic sidekick, the Errol Flynn Filmhouse. Comparing with our neighbour Milton Keynes, there they have a wonderful big theatre, but everything that runs there comes through the Ambassador Theatre Group chain – an assembly of big shows that tour the entire country. So what you see in Milton Keynes can also be seen in Birmingham, Woking, Wimbledon, Bromley, Richmond, Aylesbury, or Glasgow – and plenty more places besides. It’s good business for the theatre industry and I’m not knocking it. But it does lack a certain individuality.
Of course the Royal and Derngate will take some of those shows too, but more interestingly they also create their own home-grown productions. The annual Made in Northampton season is always a remarkable achievement, with six or more plays that make the best of local staging; and that challenge both the creative teams and their audiences with a season that does not shy away from taking on major projects and carrying them out magnificently. In the six years or so that I’ve been closely following the R&D’s output, they’ve created dozens of independent productions including transfers to the West End and Broadway (End of the Rainbow) and Shakespeare’s Globe (King John). Their productions have toured to Oxford, Leicester, Liverpool, Wolverhampton, Edinburgh and many other venues. They’ve been delightfully experimental too. The audience has joined the performers on the stage (Private Fears in Public Places, Town) or in the Rehearsal Room (Midsummer Bacchanalia), at the Holy Sepulchre (King John), in the Mailcoach pub (Honest), in Beckets Park (Decky Does a Bronco) or in the Chronicle and Echo Print Works (The Bacchae). Now that’s what I call inventiveness!
And of course there’s also the Underground, a venue with its own tricks up its sleeve, where Mrs C and I have spent many an uproarious night with the Screaming Blue Murder comedy nights, but which can also lend itself for very experimental theatre experiences. The Actors’ Company performed Ayckbourn’s Revengers’ Comedies there in 2009, with the audience seated around the walls in a complete rectangle. Only a couple of weeks ago we saw the Young Company create their spellbinding Kontakt experience in a murky mist of incense and school desks. And I’ll never forget the extraordinary intimate staging of The Body of an American in 2014.
In addition, for the last couple of years, we’ve had the Errol Flynn Filmhouse, an oasis of celluloid culture where the cinema actually treats you like an adult. Reclining leather chairs, a state of the art sound system, films you actually want to see, decent food and drink including several lines from local producers, and above all you get the feeling it’s a place that wants to show you a film rather than a place that wants to sell you a vat of popcorn and chuck a movie into the bargain. It constantly rates highly as one of the Northamptonshire’s most popular attractions on Trip Advisor, and it certainly encouraged us to go back to the cinema after a long estrangement from that genre.
Just across the road is somewhere I regret that I still haven’t visited but I have heard great things about – and that’s the Looking Glass Theatre. They have a theatre school for 8 – 18 year olds and regularly present children’s shows and pantomimes, as well as having a major costume hire service. Further down Derngate you come across the extraordinary house at No 78, the only house designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in England. This is now an independent tourist attraction, welcoming visitors from all over the world who are attracted by Mackintosh’s unique style. Not only can you learn about the history of this fascinating building but it also has a fantastic restaurant, The Dining Room, which offers so much more than your usual museum café.
So wedged within this small cultural enclave are a wide variety of attractions, and we are very lucky to have them. We all know of shops, restaurants, pubs that have closed down due to lack of customers. Don’t let that happen to our wonderful arts spaces. Use them or lose them – they’re far too good to lose! Why not show your support for our independent artistic adventurers in the Cultural Quarter by visiting the Independence Day Fair at the Guildhall on Saturday. It’s free to get in and you might discover something new to enjoy!