New theatre: three mad men in a boat mark 15 years of Spike Theatre

Vicky Anderson

Spike’s latest play, Sink or Swim, shows the Liverpool-based theatre company weathering the storm.

Liverpool-based Spike Theatre marks its 15th anniversary this year with Sink or Swim, a new comedy about three men shipwrecked and set adrift in a lifeboat. The company, whose recent shows have included Top of the World, Danny the Champion of the World and The Games, are touring their latest play, which appears at The Lowry and Brewery Arts Centre this month. Sink or Swim takes its inspiration from tales of the 18th-century bedlam ships, those floating asylums used to soak up the excess when the mad houses were full. En-route to America, our three protagonists come under attack, their ship sunk; as dawn breaks they find themselves alone in a lifeboat and with only a single oar for company. Needless to say, they spend much of their time going round and round in circles – and this play, described as “an insanely comic tale of three men’s maddening struggles at sea”, shows Spike’s trademark mix of clowning and storytelling.

There’s much to celebrate, not least the fact that this amiable company is still here at all

Directed by Spike’s artistic director Mark Smith, Sink or Swim boasts both established and up-and-coming talent from Merseyside and beyond. The cast includes veteran of Liverpool’s theatre scene Paul Duckworth, Graham Hicks (one half of comedy act Random Acts of Wildness), and Shaun Mason. Writer Robert Farquhar (Dead Heavy Fantastic, Big Wow theatre company) devised the script from workshops improvised by the cast, making the end result a genuinely collaborative effort, while the piece is co-directed by Spymonkey’s Toby Park, a long-time friend and colleague of the team.

There is much to celebrate with this 15th anniversary show, not least the fact that the amiable company is still here at all. Spike’s commitment to touring work has been arguably more evident than other independent companies working out of Liverpool. After losing Arts Council portfolio status in 2011, and despite a more challenging climate for the arts all round, it hasn’t stopped them hitting the road.

“We love touring and have been doing so since 1997 – it’s important to the company because we want to share our work to as many people as possible,” says artistic director Mark Smith. And, with two decades of experience behind them, it means the company has built up strong relationships with some of the region’s more established theatre spaces, including Salford’s Lowry and Kendal’s Brewery Arts Centre, as well as the Liverpool Playhouse where this particular tour began. “We love going to a venue and bringing something new to them,” says Smith. “As we have been touring for so long, it often feels like a local gig, with regular followers who care about the work we make, and who have grown with us.”

Spike has experimented with a variety of fundraising efforts to keep touring, including running a successful We Fund campaign to get its last show The Games, part of the Cultural Olympiad, to the Edinburgh Festival in 2012. Smith says it is vital that theatre from the regions is showcased across the UK, and to that end Sink or Swim is also travelling to a number of venues in the South East.  “Even Merseyside has a style that is different from Manchester – the training establishments, the theatres and what they programme, what touring work people see; all of these factors influence a region and how it presents work,” says Smith. “It is vital to the ecology of theatre that work is shared, because the impact and influence can be felt years later.”

Small-scale touring theatre such as Spike’s has been hugely effected by funding cuts and Spike is not alone in worrying as to how much longer this way of working can continue – but for now Spike is determined to keep it up and will be coming to a venue near you soon. “We will do everything we possibly can to ensure that we are touring into the future,” says Smith. “These are very difficult times for theatre and touring, but some fabulous venues continue to support us and we are grateful for that. Ultimately, we want to continue to create new work that entertains, and tell stories that are fun and ask questions of the world.”

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