Tales from the Thames

Creative Estuary Co-commissions is supporting a wide range of cultural projects with new commissions for Estuary-based producers and artists, from activity for emerging cultural activists to large scale commissions. Tales from the Thames is one such commission which ran over the summer of 2021 and we hear from Mathew Russell, Mathew is Executive Director at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch about his experience.

Back in the depths of what felt like the longest of winters, one of the greatest joys was being introduced to the inspiring possibilities of the Creative Estuary project, and the chance to discuss a new commission.

At Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, we were keen to move fast – to try something new as we emerged from the pandemic, that would take theatre into the heart of communities and work with South Essex artists new to us. We wanted to be ambitious about place making and explore a model of touring that could have a lasting impact into the future.

We were thrilled when Creative Estuary said yes. Straight away we commissioned a new play, eventually titled ‘Tales from the Thames’, and brought together Vickie Donoghue and Rebecca Brewer from Thurrock, and MG Boulter from Southend, to write it. They did an extraordinary job of weaving together a set of fresh South Essex narratives, exploring important issues in accessible ways for new audiences, and creating a popular piece bursting to the seams with music, laughter, tears and the odd puppet! Afterwards all of them talked so positively about the opportunity to collaborate and learn together in this way for the first time.

We spent a lot of time looking very closely at maps to identify where the most underserved audiences in South Essex lived, and set out on the road to find local venues serving communities in each of those places. Our Head of Production, Christine Piper, did a fab job of rooting out 10 intimate locations, including amongst others a working men’s club in Grays, a village hall in West Tilbury, a historic pub on Canvey Island, a heritage barn in the Wat Tyler Country Barn and a leisure centre in Pitsea. The relationships with these venues, new to us, often new to theatre, were fantastic and everyone involved helped to fill the spaces with joy, albeit socially distanced, and ensure the show looked special on each occasion.

And we called out for creative practitioners from South Essex to work across all of the roles – as creative team, actors, stage managers, film makers and educationalists. This was a fascinating exercise, revealing so much talent in the region new to us or giving the Theatre the opportunity to work with people we hadn’t before. This diverse team of brilliant people were sometimes working in their home county for the first time and spoke of learning so much about working in non traditional spaces and ways of engaging with very different audiences. The new relationships we’ve built and they’ve built between each other have already led to so many fresh and exciting projects developing in a really short time.

Creative Estuary, the venues, the artists, were all stars, but the audience, on their doorstep and online in a digital captured version too, were rather special. Despite the pandemic being more present than expected, almost all of the free tickets were issued, the audience were almost entirely from South Essex, of all ages, and rated the work very highly, as we worked hard to capture responses from as many people as possible.

We’re so proud of what everyone involved in ‘Tales from the Thames’ achieved – and it’s definitely inspired us to make more theatre like this, with and for these audiences, with new artists, in new places. There’s so much opportunity to grasp in terms of cultural place making in the Creative Estuary, and we’re very excited to keep playing our part for a long time to come.

Mathew Russell
Photo by Mark Sepple 2021
Photo by Mark Sepple 2021
Photo by Mark Sepple 2021