A fresh look at an 87-year-old organisation: that’s what Yorkshire-based theatre company Mikron sets out to achieve in their new play Best Foot Forward: a hike through the history of hostelling.
Best Foot Forward by Mikron Theatre
Youth Hostel Association (YHA) York
Tour continues till October
Mikron Theatre is no stranger to writing about inspirational British movements – their other show touring this year focuses on the RNLI – but when playwright Maeve Larkin approached the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) asking to tell their story, she’d not anticipated just how supportive they’d be, as accommodating to the idea as they are in their provision of cheap places to spend the night.
This “pleasing marriage of form and content” has shaped the play, so that it reflects the true ethos of the YHA and the very real challenges the not-for-profit organisation has faced over the years.
It’s the perfect setting in which to stage Best Foot Forward, and not only because YHA York is one of many beautiful old houses that have been renovated and turned into hostels.
As a YHA volunteer myself, having painted some of the interior walls at this very hostel, it’s a fitting location for a play that is largely set at a YHA volunteering event.
Fictional youth hostel Pearling Manor is facing the looming possibility of being sold and turned into a golf club, and there seems to be little the manager and volunteers can do to keep the beautiful historic building accessible to all.
Meanwhile Connie, YHA’s first ever warden, takes us on a journey through the YHA’s past in the hope of securing its future.
We learn about the movement’s roots in Germany before it was established in England and Wales in 1930, then the changes of the Sixties and Eighties, right through to the twenty-first century. All this is seamlessly interwoven with the main storyline.
Seven original songs, and some rhyming dialogue, make the show ideal for families although adults will naturally get more out of it. Best Foot Forward is especially engaging for those familiar with YHA, as it offers a nostalgic view of how things used to be.
Even in my lifetime, I remember making our own beds with sheet sleeping bags, and the term “warden” being used instead of “manager”!
Just four actors (Rose McPhilemy, James McLean, Claire-Marie Seddon and Craig Anderson) portray a variety of larger-than-life yet believable characters, from the lead roles to the farm animals surrounding the hostel.
They flawlessly switch between accents and from dialogue to song, and are also responsible for playing all the musical instruments, yet somehow all this seems effortless and they maintain their energy and enthusiasm throughout.
There’s enough humour to get the audience chuckling every couple of minutes, while fitting subtly into the dialogue rather than trying too hard.
And yet there are serious moments, too. Best Foot Forward is ultimately about the conflict between moving with the times and maintaining traditional values: livelihoods destroyed, buildings holding treasured memories sold off, and cheap simplicity replaced by new generations demanding the provision of WiFi, hot showers, private rooms, and cutlery.
It’s clear that the success of YHA today, and its hope for the future, is in its ability to compromise. Hostels these days are more comfortable, catering to much more than long-distance walkers, and there’s no need to do chores (although volunteering can be a great way to earn yourself a free stay!).
But YHA has never lost sight of its original aim: to help all, especially young people of limited means, to experience new places in the countryside, towns and cities.
Accommodation is still affordable, all profits are reinvested into programmes such as Breaks For Kids, and there is a commitment to preserving historic buildings for everyone to enjoy.
You can find out more on YHA’s website.
I recommend Best Foot Forward to anyone with any connection to the YHA. Whether you’ve only stayed in a youth hostel once or have years of hosteling memories, you’re guaranteed a compelling and eye-opening journey.
Best Foot Forward is written by Maeve Larkin and is directed by Mikron Theatre’s Artistic Director Marianne McNamara, designed by Kate Morton, with music composed by Kieran Buckeridge and directed by Rebekah Hughes