The Babbling Vagabonds all set to entertain the Christmas crowds in Derby
PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 December 2017
Nigel Powlson meets the founders of a vibrant local theatre company who will be bringing fun and laughter to the festive season
Photographs: Robert Day
IF you are looking for something a bit different from the big pantos this Christmas then it’s worth a visit to Derby Guildhall Theatre where a Derbyshire company’s offerings have been quietly becoming a festive tradition for many families. The Babbling Vagabonds have been creating stage shows in Derbyshire for 17 years and this Christmas return to the Guildhall Theatre with another self-penned show that’s packed with humour for all ages.
Prince Stroppy Pants and the Christmas Caper is the fifth consecutive festive show at the venue for a versatile company who are happy to perform indoors or out – as long as they can tell a great story.
Phil Coggins is Babbling Vagabonds’ director. He’s a Derbyshire lad who went off to drama school and came back with two friends who shared his passion for creating family shows. Phil and husband and wife team Mark Hornsey and Tara Saunders have been based in Buxton since 2000 and now have a loyal audience willing to follow them around the county.
Phil says: ‘We met at drama school in the 1990s, and made a conscious decision to move to Derbyshire in 2000. We helped set up the Bakewell Arts Festival and brought a production to that. We all enjoyed that experience and there didn’t seem to be much theatre, especially outdoors, on offer in the rural parts of Derbyshire, so it made sense to try and make a go of it here, rather than be one of the many theatre companies in London. We were naïve but enthusiastic and it seems to have worked. We looked at business start-up opportunities and training but they were designed for people who wanted to be plumbers or to open a fish and chip shop. What we fell back on was our great friendship and that has allowed us to create the shows. There’s a lot of humour in our company and that becomes infectious and works through to our productions.’
Babbling Vagabonds pride themselves on the universal appeal of their storytelling. ‘We appeal from three to 93 year olds and covering that broad spectrum is very important to us,’ says Phil. ‘I don’t think we have ever done a show where either the parents or the kids go “oh no” after five minutes. We have always made work that appeals to all ages. I think that’s because when we started in the rural backwaters you either got the whole village or just one family, so very quickly we established that we needed a great story, told well, to keep everyone happy and wanting to come back and that has been our mantra.
‘Last year at the Christmas show we got a note from a parent who said, “I brought my two sons to see your show and we all enjoyed it – they followed the story all the way through. The oldest one is 36 and the youngest 32.” That sums up the real connection we have built up with our audience over the 17 years. We have worked with every community on our doorstep, schools, village halls and fêtes and have learned what people want. We are theatre-makers in the same way there are film-makers. Our process as artists has evolved quite dramatically over the years and we have had to find our own way. Our relationship with our audience has always sustained us and inspired us when we have had to think about what we will create next.’
Babbling Vagabonds has survived where others have floundered by remaining versatile and not relying on only one stream of work. The company used to do more shows in schools until education budgets grew tighter but have more recently developed links with Derby LIVE that have seen them perform promenade-style in Markeaton Park in the summer and at the Guildhall each Christmas.
Phil says: ‘There has been a massive drop off in the number of schools taking in work which has made us re-think but in many ways that has been the secret of our success – never being restricted to doing only one or two things. The Christmas shows have been great for us as they have given us an annual anchor. Now we are on our fifth show people tell us, “You are our Christmas – we see you every year”. It’s very touching to be part of people’s calendars. It was the same with our outdoor events, when people told us that they booked holidays around our show dates.’
Babbling Vagabonds originally tapped into a rich tradition of folk and fairy tales as the inspiration for their work. ‘We went to a lot of festivals and just listened to storytellers,’ says Phil. ‘We found tales you wouldn’t see in a bookshop or library and they were designed for the whole family and would have originally been told with everyone gathered around a fire at night. There are some real gems we have adapted into shows. More recently we have created our own stories and that has been a wonderful revolution for us. It’s quite liberating and I’m not sure why we didn’t do it earlier. What we have learned is to find the nuggets in a story that tantalise people and make them want to know what happens next.
‘Outdoor theatre is something we have always done – our first two shows were in gardens and were quite wild events at the mercy of the elements. People come out and make a real effort. There’s something magical about gathering in an interesting space and watching a story evolve. We have created shows in quarries, up hillsides, in dark woods and we get audiences who may never set foot in a theatre but will remember what you have created forever because they got rained on watching these mad actors creating stories. It’s always appealed to us to work with the amazing spaces we have in Derbyshire – all these great nooks and crannies. If you can harness that natural beauty you can create something you couldn’t do on a stage without the budget of Andrew Lloyd Webber.’
Now, it’s back indoors for the Christmas show. ‘For Derby LIVE we tend to come up with a title and work backwards from that,’ says Phil. The company will expand to take in the actors needed for the show, with effort made to employ local performers, if possible. Phil says: ‘It’s always great to see local talent emerge and develop and we want to help with that. We did a workshop earlier this year to say hello to actors in the East Midlands and it was encouraging to see so many people who had heard of us and wanted to work with us. It can be quite lonely being an actor and often having to gravitate to London so it’s nice if we can give them work on their home patch where family and friends can support them, especially at Christmas.’
Phil knows that there is big competition for the pound in people’s pockets at Christmas and that he has to work hard to drag people away from the big budget spectaculars that have all the marketing power.
‘Derby Theatre’s Christmas shows have grown and flourished into a fantastic asset for the city and Derby LIVE has its big show at the Arena. But not everybody is looking for the “big show” which can be a bit loud and long. We also get people who have seen the big shows and still have time for us. The Guildhall is a really welcoming little theatre, it has real character and the people who run it get dressed up as something appropriate to the show. It becomes an event and that’s something the Guildhall Theatre does very well. I think there will always be a need for families to find things to do that will take them on an adventure and give them a memory to cherish.’
GUILDHALL CHRISTMAS SHOW
Prince Stroppy Pants and the Christmas Caper, by Babbling Vagabonds co-produced by Derby LIVE, can be seen from 7th to 28th December at Derby LIVE’s Guildhall Theatre. His Royal Highness the Prince is the bossiest, stroppiest, snottiest Prince that ever did live. He is rude and lazy, and worst of all he is given everything that he asks for. Spoilt rotten by everyone he demands more and more until finally he demands the unthinkable: ‘I want Father Christmas’ Magical Sleigh and I want it now!’ With this latest outrageous request, his father the Right Royal King sets out to find it. After a week of waiting the Prince starts to worry, after a month he is scared.
This is the fifth year Babbling Vagabonds has returned to Derby LIVE’s Guildhall Theatre and follows past successful Christmas shows The Christmas Chocolate Shop, Naughty Meg and the Christmas Elves, The Potty Professor’s Christmas Miracle and Captain Sprout and the Christmas Pirates. Tickets, from £10–£13.50, with concessions etc, are available from Derby LIVE Box Office on 01332 255800, online at derbylive.co.uk, or from the Sales and Information Centre, Market Place, Derby, DE1 3AH.