Review: Northampton and its people are the stars of an entertaining and educational theatrical treat

Lily Canter reviews 60 Miles by Road or Rail at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton

Tuesday, 28th September 2021, 11:58 am
The play tells the story of Northampton's expansion (photo: Ali Wright)
The play tells the story of Northampton's expansion (photo: Ali Wright)

As someone who spent seven formative years living and working in Northampton I was especially intrigued to see 60 Miles by Road or Rail.

Like many of the play's characters I ended up moving to the town from the south and was thrilled and disappointed in equal measure during my time there.

A town of great historical importance and even greater potential, Northampton has struggled to find an identity over the past 50 years owing to the quagmire of traditional Northamptonians and constant influx of new arrivals.

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The height of this clash of cultures came during the1960s with the introduction of the New Town Act. At the same time as Milton Keynes was being planned, Northampton underwent a development experiment to double its population by 70,000.

An uneasy partnership was formed between the Northampton Development Corporation and the local council to implement the creation of the Eastern District to house the London slum overspill.

With plenty of humour, in-jokes and pointed political commentary, 60 Miles by Road or Rail attempts to retell this landmark moment in time and explore its impact on the town and its existing and incoming residents.

It is just one piece of a wider inter-generational heritage project which includes oral histories, photography and documentaries films which focus on the largely untold New Town story.

A cast of five performers, including local actors, portray the fascinating, frenetic and bittersweet slice of history when Northampton was forced to expand.

It was a particular blast from the past for myself, as one of the actors, Helen Crevel, appeared in short film Paper Chase. It won the 2013 Public Vote in the Film Northants festival, which I founded. I hadn't seen Helen perform for almost a decade and it was delightful surprise to see her commanding the stage as Winnie - the young, creative heart of modern Northampton.

Writer Ryan Leder and director Andy Routledge have taken a topic that could have been as dry as a town planning meeting (I know, I've sat through many), and transformed it into an intriguing production which acts as a rally cry to do better for the town.

Admittedly in some sections the slipping back and forth between time frames was a little confusing and the breaking of the fourth wall didn't always land well, but as a piece of performance history it hit the mark.

The play wears Northampton firmly on its sleeve and it would be disingenuous to suggest that it would play well to a universal audience - it is very much for the preserve of Northamptonians with plenty of niche jokes to tickle those in the know.

As someone who worked on the local paper for several years I had no idea about the New Town expansion nor did I realise the town released an extremely catchy, chart-topping pop song in the 1980s.

As a result I came away from the production feeling educated and entertained, and somewhat reluctantly singing about my guy in Northampton.

* 60 Miles by Road or Rail was performed at Royal & Derngate from September 22 to 25. Find out more about the entire project at www.60milesbyroadorrail.co.uk