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.”

Culture Guides


Northern flicks, sci-fi masterpieces and some brand new film festivals feature in this month’s cinema preview.


Spring weather might be dragging its feet a little, but the world of exhibitions isn’t slowing down with new shows popping up everywhere to greet the new season.

The Bull and the Moon at Instituto Cervantes


With spring’s indecisive weather in mind, we’ve pulled together a whole load of fun indoor and outdoor family events and activities taking place in Manchester and the North.

Poet Helen Mort.


Spring is making an entrance in live literature land with some extra special festival events, writing walks, online launches and in real life readings from local writers as well as international talent.


From Father John Misty to The Flaming Lips, The Waeve to Big Thief, here are the gigs on our radar for early spring.

Theatre in Manchester and the North


You’ll find everything from work-in-progress scratch nights to multi-award winning musicals in this month’s theatre guide.

Classical Music

We preview the standout classical music events and venues in Manchester and the north.

Food and Drink

Get ready for spring and summer with the best restaurants and bars in Manchester and the North.

Tours and Activities

From indie markets to bit-sized meditation, spoon carving workshops to gallery tours, here are the headlines in the world of tours and activities.

Things to do right now

Powered by culturehosts