Depot – theatre in the old tram depot


4th October 2009

On Saturday we had a great night out courtesy of the Mercury Theatre Company, celebrating their 10th Anniversary.

Our relationship with the Mercury is somewhat longer, as we first went to the Mercury in about 1983. It wasn’t an auspicious start. Having spent three years in Leeds making the most of student nightlife, we were relatively less well served in Colchester, and took whatever opportunities presented themselves. However, it didn’t take too long before Hinge & Bracket In Concert was somewhat of a step down from watching The Clash, The Specials, and going to the Leeds Playhouse.

Since then there has been a wide range of highlights at the Mercury. Comedy shows by Arthur Smith and Lee Evans were excellent, as were ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Oh! What A Lovely War’.  Evenings with Paul Daniels, and Test Match Special’s Henry Blofeld, didn’t quite live up to those standards.

Leaving aside the Mercury, the recent theatrical highlight in Colchester was ‘Orpheus and Euridyce’ by Souterrain, who had hit the headlines with their two-day event in London featuring a colossal elephant.  Staged in the gardens of The Minories, and over several floors of the old Keddies Department store, the audience followed the cast around in an altogether different kind of performance.

Which leads us to Saturday night, with the Mercury Theatre’s ‘Depot’ which was staged in the old tram sheds on Magdalen Street, near St. Botolph’s Station.

Depot Entrance in Daytime
Depot Entrance in Daytime


As with the Souterrain event, if you were after a couple of hours sitting down watching a traditional three-act pkay, you were in for a shock. Upon arrival members of the audience were issued with tabards and caps stencilled with ‘The Depot’ and marched between the two large sheds.

The audience spent the evening being moved from location to location, sometimes with benches to sit on, other times free to move around. The setting was one of the stars of the show, two huge tram sheds, with narrow corridors and offices to be navigated between the two, and with the large doors opened to let in a throbbing motorbike and jeep. Even the inspection pit was used, in a quite memorable and emotional excavation of a dead body. The space is used to good effect, and the excellent lighting and sound enhance the experience.

The intention of ‘Depot’ was to reflect on Colchester’s long history and some of the characters from that history. It’s the darker corners that are explored, so no Us v Leeds FA Cup giant-killing! There isn’t a traditional narrative, as such, and characters pop in and out throughout the evening. In the first part of the event, the multi-storey offices that are part of the sheds are used very effectively, with several characters being visible both through the windows of the offices and via CCTV on a huge screen.

Eight foot tall on her stilts
Eight foot tall on her stilts

Mercury is one of the guides throughout the first half, wearing a winged aviator jacket and helmet, the striking make-up and spooky contact lenses giving her a strong visual impact (turning into another character in the second half, skilfully taking a pair of stilts in her stride). Representing those in power, who are the oppressors (the oppressed including the audience), a fur-stoled lord berates those beneath him (both literally and socially) and ponders the nature of time.

The more you know of the town’s history, the more you will pick up without having to rely on the excellent handbook supplied at the end of the event. Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes entertain throughout, an (in)famous pair of early 20th Century tramps. In addition to Wat Tyler and John Ball, there is witchcraft, murder most foul from the 19th Century, history in the shape of St Helena, and much more.

The evening builds to a crescendo with the audience seated at long refectory tables, as the inmates of Severalls Hospital begin to free themselves from the yoke of oppression.

Intermission Beer on the Bus
Intermission Beer on the Bus

If there are tickets left, we’d recommend the evening (ring the Mercury box office on 01206 573948). There’s even a intermission and you can get a bottle of Adnams and sit upstairs on a old red double-decker bus. (Were the ceilings always that low on those buses?).

There’s a lengthy list provided of those involved in the event, which featured some local non-actors. We did spot the call that went out earlier this year for people to take part, and only wish now that we had stepped forward! As there’s no proper cast-list, so we can’t name-check any of the actors, but it’s a challenging, and rewarding event to celebrate the 10th birthday of the Mercury Theatre Company.