Company Name: Cunning Stunts
Established: April 1977
Reason: ‘… we felt that much theatre, including “alternative theatre” had become elitist and we wanted to develop a truly accessible, non-elitist form of live theatre…..We wanted to create a more spontaneous performer’s theatre rather than a writer’s or director’s theatre.’ (British Alternative Theatre Directory,1979). Also as a women’s company (from 1978) they saw that there was a need ‘ to display the absurdity of male behaviour and to present women alone being funny and flouting the prevailing glamorous image of women as entertainers’ (The Leveller,1980)
Current Status: The company’s last show was a South Bank performance at the Splash festival early 1982.
Area of Work: Women’s: alternative circus and cabaret
Policy: Initially ‘Cunning Stunts aims to develop a popular form of folk entertainment relevant to the times we live in now, as mummers plays, commedia dell’arte and music-hall were to the times that shaped them’ (British Alternative Theatre Directory, 1979). When the policy statement was revisited two years later there is more emphasis on the company’s role in raising social issues. ‘Our shows are musical, visual and highly energetic. Our collective imagination and energy carries with it social commitment. We believe by demonstrating the creativity, imagination, honesty, humour and solidarity of women, we can explode many of the myths perpetuated by a diverse and competitive society’ (British Alternative Theatre Directory,1981)
Structure: ‘….one of the few theatre groups to function fully as a collective’ (The Leveller, 1980). ‘[They were] all performers who share all the functions which are: administration, publicity, stage management, driving, a certain amount of childcare…. Accounting, writing, some set, props and costume making’ (British Alternative Theatre Directory, 1979). When they became based at the Drill Hall Di Robson had an important role as administrator. The company expanded to thirteen for the Christmas Show December 1980 and with founder member Iris Walton having left the company, Jan Dungey was credited as the show’s ‘producer’ – an organisational role that hadn’t been identified for the previous shows.
Based: London based touring company
Funding: Project funded from the Arts Council Drama and Writing panel (£1,750 between 1977-1979) and regularly supported by the GLAA and Regional Arts Associations.
Performance venues: London: Oval House, Jackson’s Lane, Almost Free Theatre, Tricycle Theatre, The Drill Hall. Royal Court Theatre, Southbank Centre, Women’s Live Festival, Rotherhithe Festival, North London Psychiatric Unit, North East London Polytechnic, Women’s Open Prison, Peckham Social Services Benefit, Lewisham Third World Shop, Lewisham Youth Aid, Gillingham Council Parks. Extensive UK touring including: Hastings, East Bergholt Moon Fair, Windsor Art Circuit Baldwin Centre Eton, Formby Arts Centre, The Squat Manchester, Wetherden Village Hall Suffolk, Festival of Fools South-West tour: Penzance, Torrington, Exeter and Hood Faire Devon. Dublin. Holland tour including Festival of Fools at Melkweg, Shaffy Theatre & Paradiso Amsterdam, Rotterdam. Italy: Women’s Comic Festival in Tuscany including Modena, Germany and Austria tour including Wuppertal, ufaFabrik, Quartier Latin Berlin and Vienna. Denmark.
Audiences: The company devised shows for a variety of audiences – children; family shows, late-night cabaret and fringe audiences. They particularly valued community audiences as they ‘receive stimulation from audiences who rarely see live theatre’ and they adapted their performances to the needs of that community: ‘Cunning Stunts can let loose their collective madness in your town; your community centres, your village halls; in fact anywhere there is space and a roof over your head. Cunning Stunts also perform in pubs and the open air – on the streets, at fetes and at community festivals. Let us know when and where you want us to perform and we’ll be there.’ (Company publicity sheet, 1978). They played many non-theatrical venues such as women’s open prisons and psychiatric units. By 1979 they were based at the Drill Hall and had ‘a following’ on the women’s circuit.
Company work and process:
From Still Life Mime Theatre to Cunning Stunts
Iris Walton had trained in mime, dance and acrobatics in Paris for five years under Jacques LeCoq and then Étienne Decroux. Returning to London in 1974, she ran mime and physical theatre classes at The Dance Studio, Covent Garden. Encouraged by her students – Ross Foley, Lyndal Jones, Shirley Wilchek and Barnaby Gale – she founded Still Life Mime Theatre and they played the Edinburgh Festival in 1975 supported by a small Arts Council grant. Good reviews brought Between Four Walls to The Roundhouse Downstairs in November. Iris Walton and Ross Foley were now living together in rented accommodation owned by the photography lecturer and designer Andrew Haig ( who created The Stunts characteristically humorous and stylish posters over the next five years). For their next show Wee Beasties and Small Supporting Acts they used rehearsal space in a squat opposite Kenwood House. Jan Dungey was living in the squat – she had worked with the prison-based theatre company Stirabout and was currently working at Chiswick Women’s Aid. Dungey joined Still Life …. for Wee Beasties a fairly ‘dark’ show in which they played monkeys. Following a changeover of personnel in 1977 there was a change of direction in the company’s work and hence the need for a new name. An off-colour joke of Dungey’s gave them their outrageous Spoonerist name – Cunning Stunts. Realising how ‘under-represented women’s humour was in the theatre’ (The Leveller,1980) they exploited their contrasting physiques – the strong acrobatic Walton and the 6’ 2” of Dungey. This, alongside an anarchic sense of humour drawn from Walton’s love of the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton – was to be the core of the new company’s work. Dungey’s background in blues and folk singing and Walton’s dance background would be further consistent ingredients of the Stunts’ work.
Oval House and Wish You Were Here
Now using Oval House as their rehearsal base Walton, Dungey and Foley started trying out ideas in pubs, OAP homes and playgroups. In the Spring and Summer of 1977 they had worked up three shows: Once A Knight’s Enough; Hullaballoon and a children’s show Here There Be Monsters. They performed at Oval House children’s playground as part of their Queens Jubilee celebrations on 7th June 1977 and under the auspices of Action Space on Parliament Hill. When Ross Foley stopped performing with The Stunts ‘for the sake of their relationship’ (Walton,2016) the musical elements of the company were enhanced by Jan’s friend – the blues musician Simon Prager (Blues Like Showers Of Rain) and by Rix (Caroline) Pyke – later of Clapperclaw. Oval House was a ‘magnificent’ creative melting pot – companies such as Kaboodle, Lumiere and Son, Gay Sweatshop and The People Show would hang out, watch each other’s rehearsals, socialise in the Oval café or neighbouring pubs. Cunning Stunts were booked for a late night cabaret at Oval House in November 1977. Cunning Stunts Wish You Were Here introduced Walton’s sexy ‘Cosi fan Tutti’ a striptease in which a grapefruit, with the help of a be-sparkled Walton, sheds all of its peel; Walton, Pyke and Dungey in a Marx brothers type gangster spoof and blues numbers from Prager and Dungey. After the show Emil Wolk of The People Show (also an ex-student of Étienne Decroux) complemented Walton on the originality of the women’s physical theatre skills – clarifying for Walton and Dungey the direction the company should take. Even more significant, two ‘bookers’ from Europe in the audience signed up The Stunts for the Women’s Comic Festival in Italy and for venues in Germany the following year.
Cunning Stunts’ Rationale and Auditions
As they started planning their next show Cunning Stunts’ raison d’etre was now apparent. The company were to be expanded to six performers – crucially, it was to be a women’s company using physical and verbal comedy, theatre skills and music to create a modern form of popular theatre. Whilst never being overtly feminist the Stunts resistance to femininity made them powerfully subversive. Walton explains the direct way they took on society’s body fascism : ‘Which bits of my body do I not like? Right, I’m going to expose that bit! ….[They would] take the piss out of themselves and everybody else!’ (Walton,2016). Following auditions the new Stunts line-up was Walton, Dungey, Gill Cappa, Erin Steel – a witty song-writer, Debbie Hall and Margo Random – also exceptional musicians.
Ham Fat on the Turn
The initial idea was to be a satire of the pharmaceutical industry using the elaborately punning title Farmer Cutie-Gals Spare Parts Works . Press releases and a poster were designed by Andrew Haig. However the Stunts working method was such that no ideas were too sacred not to be reconsidered in the rehearsal process and in the end the show became Ham Fat on the Turn a ‘kind of feminist pantomime’. The six female performers played an abundance of male characters – from the wicked winkle-pickered Ham Fat (Steel) to the tyrannised chef Vaselini and his brothers – ‘…it was something we had to work through. It was necessary to send up male attitudes, violent or otherwise, before going on to develop our creativity’. (The Leveller). The form the show took was a series of ‘set pieces’ such as Dungey’s tap-dancing spider and a poison scene that enabled Walton as the hunchbacked ‘Quirk’ to indulge in her passion for pyrotechnics. There was a human pyramid of Strong Women and a Busby Berkeley finale featuring ostriches. Walton reprised Cosi fan Tutti. The storyline loosely tied the sections together but the route by which they moved from one routine to another varied for performance to performance. The company would become renowned for their rapid costume changes and the high energy of their performance. They toured Ham Fat extensively through the UK, Ireland, Women’s Comic Festival in Tuscany, Germany and Holland – where a grotesquely humorous close-up of Dungey was used on the cover of the Melkweg’s Festival of Fools programme. The Stunts first tour bus – a van with no passenger seats and doors that would slide open mid-transit – was replaced by an ex-ambulance that was decked out with a bed.
The Working Method and The Odyssey
With all shows there was an extensive period of development and the early performances were very much ‘work in progress’ before the details became firmly embedded and polished (Dungey,2011). The complex alternative titles by which shows were known indicates this drawn-out development process and after the ‘wasted’ Farmer Cutie-Gals posters all other Stunts posters would be generic with no actual show titles indicated. In all cases The Stunts created ‘a theatrical style that combine[d] acting, mime, singing and dancing with such circus-like feats as fire-eating, juggling, stilt-walking and acrobatics largely seen in one-night performances at touring venues’ (The Leveller, 1980). Mischief-making was rife in performance too as company members often had to respond to being ‘set up’ by their colleagues or unexpected ad-libs. The Stunts’ shows were devised through improvisation. The Odyssey used Homer’s epic poem as its starting point. Reimagined as an all-female adventure it was one of their more coherent shows. The triumphant send-off for ‘the heroes’ led to all the company learning to play brass instruments. They each played a main part (Walton played a Glaswegian Odysseus, Dungey was the Cyclops) and also all the other parts – rehearsing during the day they then wrote up ‘their bit’ at night. For example they wanted to include Circe and her pigs and someone suggested ‘let’s make them dancing pigs’ – Random them came up with the lyric: ‘Hello my name is Circe and here are my dancing pigs / We tour the Grecian islands doing all these gigs’. They’d improvise, change it. They all had specialisms and would work to include these in the shows – so, for example, in The Colours Show, when Walton had worked out how to summersault down the auditorium stairs with her feet in flowerpots, for example, it was definitely going to be in the show! (Walton,2016).
The Last Resort
The Last Resort or The Desert or What’s For Afters? came out of a variant on the surrealists’ ‘exquisite corpse’ technique whereby the six company members imagined stand-alone ideas – the Pyramids, a dinosaur, a landlady, etc. and then a means was found to connect the unlikely elements. Runts on the Stoad or The Colours Show had a more straightforward structure whereby each section of the show explored a different colour – green, red, yellow, black. Now an established company and with a following on the women’s circuit The Stunts moved their base from Oval House to the Drill Hall where they now paid for rehearsal space and had a full-time administrator, Di Robson. No two shows had exactly the same line-up and this was seen as a way of injecting energy into the company. They functioned as a collective – everyone had a voice (Walton,2016).
‘…..Alongside whatever project is being prepared there are a series of skill sharing sessions. Every new member is taught to play musical instruments, as well as juggling, conjuring tricks and the secrets of contorting the human body’ (The Leveller). In an interview in Honey magazine they explain: ‘We all try to make an effort to learn things and not to mystify the others; we have a policy of non-specialization. Men are more competitive, women are better at working in collectives’ (Honey June 1981). Skills Workshops were often run by the company in parallel with the performances. This was also an opportunity to recruit potential Stunts. Plume Tarrant attended a workshop at the Drill Hall on the Ham Fat tour and joined the company for the next three years. Skills sharing extended to driving lessons for Stunts that wanted to drive the tour van – crammed with props, people and musical instruments. When Circus Oz were across from Australia to play The Roundhouse in November 1980 there was a skills sharing session with Cunning Stunts. It was through this that Jan Dungey met Sue Broadway who would briefly join the company for The Opera.
‘We try to overcome the gap between us and strangers in the audience by having people participate … through devices or games, in which the whole audience can be involved. In Runts on the Stoad …. Everyone [in the audience] was given a paper bag to place firmly on their heads and then asked to “mingle” ….it sounds silly but it did generate a warm, friendly atmosphere.’ The Leveller. In The Odyssey boxes of matches were ‘planting’ under the seats prior to performance and audience members were asked to strike matches to illuminate the escape from hades in an otherwise blacked out auditorium. This plan caused concern amongst the wardens when the company took the show into a women’s prison. In Winter Warmer the critics were taken aback by bread being throw to members of the audience in the front rows – however the audience – often Cunning Stunts regulars – cheerfully responded with ‘quacks’.
Cunning Stunts Christmas Show – The Big Nuclear Show
They became a registered charity in May 1980 and after the regular extensive summer tour with Runts in the Stoad , founder member Iris Walton quite suddenly decided to leave the company to ‘explore her creativity outside of The Stunts’ (Walton,2016) – initially running circus skills workshops for women in the ufaFabrik commune in Berlin for six months. With an Arts Council supported residency at the Tricycle Theatre, The Stunts prepared for an ambitious Cunning Stunts Christmas Show. The company doubled its size – to thirteen – and Jan Dungey took the lead on the production also known as the Big Nuclear Show that would be their most overtly political work: ‘….like all our work it was generated out of individuals’ current involvements. We have all been and are active anti-nuclear campaigners …The issue is becoming increasingly oppressive to our lives….What we are offering in originality (we hope) comes through our comedy, the opportunity for audiences to recognise the folly of our times.’ (The Listener) Although linked by a serious theme – the Christmas Show still used a cabaret structure and they ‘wanted to register protest but keep everybody light-hearted.’
Within a few months Cunning Stunts returned to Tricycle Theatre with The Opera – Images of Magic, Myth and Moonstuff – another strong show, this time evoking a dark fantasy world and with less emphasis on the comedic elements. Dungey recalls that it ‘ …. had some quite dark, scary things in it.’ Jan Dungey’s Queen was very spider like; Helen Crocker’s Owl – contributed a beautifully choreographed dance using 12ft bamboo poles; Verity’s Raven screamed and screeched with soprano; Sue Broadway (from Circus Oz ) was a monkey using a net for an aerial piece; Erin Steel wrote an extraordinarily powerful song Welcome all to the Monarch’s Hall and an Australian improvising cellist performed an the overture of over 7 minutes. Walton saw the show when The Stunts took The Opera to ufaFabrik Berlin. Later Walton had had enough of the male hierarchy that dominated the Berlin commune and set off for the South of France. When she bumped into the Stunts at the Avignon Festival some months later they wanted her to re-join the company. Dungey had an Arts Council bursary to pursue a special line of interest and had left the company to travelled to Australia – working with Circus Oz and Women’s Circus before exploring aboriginal arts in the outback.
Returning to London the now pregnant, Walton re-joined the The Stunts for the rehearsals. Winter Warmer used Gogol’s short story The Overcoat as a starting point. Plume Tarrett and Sarah Krish were involved in the design of the illuminated hats and Plume played sax but otherwise didn’t perform. Sally Davies and Iris Walton were joined by Helen Crocker, Wendy Freeman and Sally Forth -the resulting show was more visual theatre / performance art then their earlier work. Although Walton notes that the show was perhaps less comedic, she adds that Gogol’s The Overcoat is not a comedy and ‘it might have been more comedic the way we did it!’. Nigel Pollitt in The Leveller ‘… won’t forget the two women clothes-menders folding a sheet together in a way that suggests some very gentle and satisfying sexual experience. Nor the moonlit dance, starting playfully, where two anonymous figures violently tear the coat from its cold and terrified owner. It’s images and what the group are that are powerful – not politics worn on the sleeve’. (The Listener, January 1982).
With Dungey in Australia and Walton now with a young baby the future of the company was unsure. This occurred at a time when the Arts Council were making severe cuts to the budgets of most alternative theatre companies. Dungey tried to bring The Stunts to Australia – but Walton didn’t want to travel with the baby unless the baby’s father also joined them – if Walton’s partner was to come along, other company members may want their partners there too. Tarrant and Krish had become less involved as performers and wanted to concentrate on technical aspects of performance and music. It was decided to call it a day, Walton: ‘It came to its end ‘cos it was meant to come to its end – there was not a big fallout’. In early 1982 there was a farewell ‘greatest hits’ show The Last of the Best Five Years at the Southbank Centre that marked the end of the company.
Reviews: ‘For traditional fairground entertainment Cunning Stunts has everything’ Time Out (undated)
‘Bubblingly anarchic, poetic and perplexing, this is one of the most affectionate pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen.’ Nigel Pollitt on Winter Warmer, The Leveller (22 January 1982)
|Once A Knight’s Enough|
Cast included: Iris Walton, Jan Dungey and Ross Foley.
|HullaballoonCast included: Iris Walton, Jan Dungey and Ross Foley||1977|
|Here There Be Monsters|
Devised and directed by the company
Cast Included: Iris Walton and Jan Dungey
|Cunning Stunts Wish You Were Here|
Devised and directed by the company
Cast included: Iris Walton and Jan Dungey, Rix Pyke and Simon Prager
|Oval House||November 1977|
|Ham Fat on the Turn (previously planned to be Farmer Cutie-Gals Spare Parts Works|
Devised and directed by the company
Cast included: Iris Walton, Jan Dungey, Debbie Hall, Gill St. Field (later Cappa), Margo Random, Erin Steel
Festival of Fools Melkweg Amsterdam
Women's Comic Festival Tuscany, Quartier Latin Berlin, Drill Hall London
|June – October 1978 touring
14-19 June 1978 (Festival of Fools)
|The Odyssey or Wild Nights|
Devised and directed by the company
Cast included: Iris Walton, Jan Dungey, Margo Random, Erin Steel, Sally Davies, Plume Tarrant
|Touring UK and Europe including Wuppertal Germany||January – April 1979|
|Cunning Stunts Cabaret (after planned show for Summer 1979 didn’t work out)|
Cast included: Iris Walton, Jan Dungey, Erin Steel, Sarah Krish, Plume Tarrant
|Festival of Fools tour of the South-West: Penzance, Torrington and Exeter.||17-27th August 1979|
|The Last Resort The Desert or What’s for Afters?|
Devised and directed by the company
Cast included: Plume Tarrant, Sally Davies /Mandy Travis (on European gigs), Sarah Krish, Iris Walton, Erin Steel and Jan Dungey
|Almost Free Theatre London, Windsor Art Circuit Baldwin Centre Eton, Formby Arts Centre|
|October 1979 – April 1980
14th-19th January 1980 (Almost Free), 1 Feb 1980 (Eton)
8th April 1980 ( Modena Italy)
|Sir Roger Pimp and His Most Amazing Case|
Proposed for Formby Arts Centre at time of their performance of The Last Resort – unsure whether it went ahead
|Formby Arts Centre||14th March 1980|
|Benefit Concert for Women in Armagh Jail||The Rio, Kingsland High Street London||Sunday 27 April 1980|
|Runts on the Stoad or The Colours Show|
Devised and directed by the company
Cast included: Plume Tarrant, Sally Davies, Sarah Krish, Iris Walton, Erin Steel and Jan Dungey
|East Bergholt Moon Fair,|
Projects Art Centre Dublin,
European venues including Germany, Italy and Vienna
|From May 1980
Summer 1980 (Moon Fair)
|Cunning Stunts Christmas Show – Big Nuclear Show aka The Anti Nuclear Show Devised by the company Directed by Jan Dungey|
Cast of 13 included: Jan Dungey, Norma Cohen, Helen Crocker, Plume Tarrant, Sally Davies, Sally Davis, Sarah Krish, Sally Forth and Bernie Sabbath
Musicians: ‘Ova’ - Jana Runnalls
and Rosemary Schonfeld.
Costumes: Wendy Freeman
|Tricycle Theatre||January 1981|
|The Opera - Images of Magic, Myth and Moonstuff Devised and directed by the company |
Cast included: Wendy Freeman, Jan Dungey , Helen Crocker, Verity Hawkes, Erin Steel and Sue Broadway
|Tricycle Theatre, The Squat Manchester||13-18 April 1981 (Tricycle), 11 May 1981 (Manchester)|
|Winter Warmer or Gogol’s Overcoat|
Devised and directed by the company
Cast included: Iris Walton, Sally Davies, Erin Steel, Helen Crocker, Sally Forth, Wendy Freeman
Illuminated hats by Sarah Krish and Plume Tarrant
|Wetherden Village Hall Suffolk|
Womens Live Festival
|15 December 1981 (Jackson’s Lane)
Dec 1981 (Tricycle)
31st December (Wetherden)
|The Last of the Best Five Years||‘Splash’ festival South Bank Centre London||Early 1982|
Existing archival material: Arts Council files at V&A Theatre Archive (ACGB/96/106 and ACGB /41/17/5)
Bibliography: No Stunting Their Growth by Lloyd Trott in The Leveller (12 Dec 1980 – 8 Jan 1981)
Plays for Today’s Women in Honey magazine, June 1981
Cunning Stunts entry in The British Alternative Theatre Directory, 1979
Cunning Stunts entry in The British Alternative Theatre Directory, 1980
Cunning Stunts entry in The British Alternative Theatre Directory, 1981
Acknowledgements: This page was written by David Cleall with thanks to Iris Walton, Jan Dungey and Plume Tarrant.