For those of us a little concerned about returning to in-person theatre, ARC Stockton’s production of These Hills are Ours offers a welcome easing in. Not so crowded and energetic as to be a shock to the system — I’m not sure how I’d cope right now with being in a busy theatre watching a stage packed with performers after 16 months of solitude — but a calmly warming reminder of why live storytelling weaves a magic that no screen can ever match.
Friends and long-term collaborators Daniel Bye and Boff Whalley offer up a deceptively straightforward tale of hill-running, told with all the unfussy amiability of a couple of mates regaling you in the pub. With just two men sitting on stage with a guitar and a pared back set that amounts to little more than a map and a pile of rocks (Syeda Bukhari’s design reflecting the no-frills feel of the piece), it would be easy to imagine this simplicity floundering in the too-big space of the auditorium at ARC (created as a studio show, it has been transported to the main stage for social distancing reasons), but somehow it doesn’t. Under Katharine Williams’ empathetic direction, Bye’s nervy affability and Whalley’s laid back vibe expand to fill the room, managing to maintain a sense of intimacy that belies the Covid safety spacing.
Bye is an exceptional storyteller, superficially self-effacing but keeping the narrative on a tight enough leash that even those of us who rarely venture outside city environs can vicariously enjoy this country run. His slightly nerdy earnestness, with a love of gadgets and running tech and tracking every moment on an app, is pleasingly undercut by Whalley’s bemused pragmatism. An accomplished songwriter, Whalley – a founding member of the band Chumbawamba – supplies not just a wry counterpoint to the tale, but punctuates its telling with songs that are catchy and packed with charm.
While at its core, the show is just a recounting of Bye’s punishing 90-mile run — entertaining as that is in itself — it folds much more into a compact 80 minutes. It’s both a gentle meditation on friendship — the piece glows with the genuine affection between its performers — and a considerably less gentle reminder that no act, even one as seemingly mundane as a tourist tackling a well-trodden trail, is apolitical.
The run Bye undertakes is inspired by and celebrates the Kinder Mass Trespass, which in the 1930s saw a band of ramblers and members of the Young Communist League surge onto Kinder Scout in the Peak District as part of a civil disobedience campaign against the fact that so much of the country was privately owned. While the campaign was a success, paving the way for the National Parks Act in the ’40s and access rights that were eventually enshrined in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act a good 50-odd years later, the inequality it protested is still virulent. Freedoms casually assumed by the weekend walkers wandering up many of the country’s hills and mountains were hard won and are still often more under threat than we know. (Research published by The Guardian in 2019 showed that 25,000 landowners — less than 1% of the population — own more than half of the land in England and the walkers’ association, The Ramblers, handles around 50 legal cases a year fighting to maintain access to footpaths or open spaces that is under threat. This fight isn’t over, folks.)
Bye and Whalley are also quick to acknowledge that even these relatively recent rights remain heavily affected by privilege — that it’s one thing for a fit and healthy white guy to espouse the liberating joy of going for a late night run in dark countryside, but that’s an option that for many would feel impossible or actively dangerous. It’s this seam of righteous anger that stops the piece descending into whimsy and makes it a more sharp-teethed production than its low key demeanour first suggests.
These Hills Are Ours tours the UK until 16 July, with further touring in the autumn to be announced. More info here.