Pentabus Theatre’s 35th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 16:06 07 September 2009 | UPDATED: 16:13 20 February 2013

Pentabus Theatre!

Pentabus Theatre!

Shropshire's Pentabus Theatre celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. From the early days of touring village halls, the company now attracts widespread acclaim for its cutting-edge work. By Rachel Crow

Shropshire's Pentabus Theatre celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. From the early days of touring village halls, the company now attracts widespread acclaim for its cutting-edge work. By Rachel Crow

This September, Pentabus Theatre will launch its 35th anniversary year of work with a new production, Origins, specially commissioned by the Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin. "Everything about the commission was right," says Pentabus Development Director, John Moreton. "Because we are Shropshire's theatre company and have been around for 35 years and it was about a famous Salopian."

Having researched Darwin's early life in the county, the piece focuses on the great naturalist as a young man. "We went to Shrewsbury School and saw his old school books and they weren't full of complicated ideas and theses, but full of doodles and practises of his signature. He was a typical schoolboy and quite hapless, unsure what to do with himself for a long time and there was something in that universal figure that doesn't seem that far removed from young people today," says Artistic Director, Orla O'Loughlin Incorporating physical theatre, puppetry and animation, the piece is an adventuresome, fun and spirited celebration of Darwin. "And it's a celebration of our origins as well because we've been here for 35 years," adds Orla. "There aren't many companies who have lasted that long and continue to go from strength to strength. Each year Pentabus achieves more and more groundbreaking work."

At the forefront of the development of rural arts in the 1970s, initially Pentabus - so named because it served five counties - toured village halls, pub rooms and other small local venues, but as the years progressed and the rural arts movement became more entrenched, it was made easier for touring companies to travel nationally with their new pieces of live theatre. Joining Pentabus in 1994, John Moreton has steered the company through many changes, including extending its reach to include international projects.

"Everything we do is new work and it's important to make that distinction and that's principally how we differ from other touring theatre companies," he says. "It makes it more interesting but also means it's a tougher job, we have to work harder to get the audiences in. "Our aim is to pioneer engaging, provocative and surprising work that connects people and places. At the heart of our work is our location in rural Shropshire which gives us a very particular perspective on, and relationship to, the world."

This has included pioneering and provocative new work such as Strawberry Fields, a drama documentary focusing on industrialised strawberry farming, which explored related issues including its effect on the landscape and the size of fruit we eat and the power of supermarkets, but also how small towns in Shropshire are transformed by the number of migrant workers. White Open Spaces was another politically motivated piece, a collection of monologues from seven writers in response to questions by Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, as to whether there was passive apartheid in the English countryside.

"We invited writers from a range of ethnic backgrounds and sent them around the countryside to cattle markets and farms and asked them to write a short piece on their experience. It went to Edinburgh, London and Sweden and was short-listed for a South Bank Show Award. So it's amazing how an essentially local issue can take off and take on another dimension," says John. When Orla joined in 2007, she set about exploring who the company were, what they stood for and what they meant locally and internationally. "We went through a rebranding process where we changed our public face and have focused more on marketing to let people know what we do and where we are. The company has achieved some incredible things but these were largely unsung."

Moving to Shropshire from London where she was International Associate at the Royal Court Theatre, Orla became increasingly aware that the theatre scene in London was quite small and specific. "I felt there were a lot of exciting opportunities and things going on outside of London," she explains. "Here it's a very different creative space. Where we are based is very rural and beautiful and people find that inspiring, which being in a busier or urban environment doesn't quite allow."

Future projects for Pentabus's 35th anniversary season include an adaptation of Tales Of The Country written by Independent columnist Brian Viner, charting his experience of moving from London to the country; and a series of short plays exploring writers' experiences of the food culture in Ludlow. "I hope," Orla concludes, "that we continue to keep true to that spirit of investigation and asking the tricky questions or looking for the left-field idea or the interesting situation."

Origins plays at Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury from September 4-12.

Box office: 01743 281281.

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