"Regional theatre" can often have pejorative connotations but Blood + Chocolate is regional theatre in the truest and best sense, utilising the stories, creatives, people and locations of York. It has an epic scale and ambition that demonstrates a breath-taking level of technical craft and creativity. Blood + Chocolate tells the story of the city of York as it is sucked into the hell of the First World War, beginning with the naïve "it'll be over by Christmas" optimism and ending with the inevitable tragedy and unimaginable loss.
It tells the stories of the young, idealistic men of York who see service as their duty, the women who stay behind and keep the city working, particularly in the chocolate factories, and the Quaker factory owners, torn between their pacifist beliefs and their sense of responsibility to their workers.
Congregating in Exhibition Square, the audience are given headphones and receivers with which to follow the action, which begins with a stunning projected prologue on the white walls of the De Grey Rooms.
From there we are ushered through the streets of York as many stories, both intimate and universal, unfold all around us. As we walk along we find ourselves part of a parade bidding farewell to our brave soldiers; giddy flag-waving children weave in amongst us, stoic Wardens hold our hands and sing Auld Lang Syne. It creates an immersive experience unlike anything I have witnessed before.
The wearing of headphones adds to this sense of immersion. Even when the action is several yards away, the dialogue remains crisp and clear - indeed some of the scenes are so personal and private our presence and proximity feels almost invasive. The headphones also serve the purpose of blotting out everything else that is happening in "real life". You could be inches away from a rowdy Hen Do or raucous street debate and you wouldn't even notice it.
They also add to the sense of audience as part of the performance, which this production strives very hard to achieve. Not only are the audience literally in the middle of the action, we are also being observed by the people out in York who are not following the performance. People watch from pub windows, the crowd sweeps along passers-by - I even had my photo taken by a Japanese tourist.
The story flows through the city and the actions play out in, on and around many iconic landmarks, finishing with a moving climax at Clifford's Tower. Using all these locations brings the history to life with immense power, imbuing the stories with palpable resonance and relevance. Watching a teary young woman tenderly kiss her soldier love goodbye under an unassuming tree I have walked past many times, it is impossible not to believe that such an event actually happened.
It would be against everything this production stands for to single out any one person for special praise. It is a true co-production between Pilot Theatre, Slung Low and York Theatre Royal. The undoubted star of Blood + Chocolate is York itself and this production stands as a celebration of this city's unique history and its remarkable community, both then and now.
The entire run of Blood + Chocolate is now sold out but Pilot Theatre will be live streaming the performance on 17 October. For further information visit www.pilot-theatre.com