Bringing ‘Blood and Butchery’ to Bedminster, telling tales of a tobacco factory and so much more – Show of Strength are no ordinary theatre company

From lunchtime pirate pantomimes to terrifying tours of Blood and Butchery in Bedminster, Bristol-based theatre company Show of Strength certainly celebrate an immersive, as well as innovative, approach to their events. Founded in 1986, they seek to work with individuals and communities in the Bristol area to celebrate grassroots creativity and explore new ways of connecting with the past, present and future of place.

The company rarely works in formal venues and has always broken barriers… one of their mission goals after all being to ‘promote intimate, unusual and accessible performance spaces and areas for theatre that’s “close enough to touch”.’

And it really does get close. Show of Strength’s roaming performances are capable of captivating audiences old and young, taking place in the likes of shops, high streets and community venues... and never shying away from new spaces! Not only does this encourage interaction with Bristol in a whole new way, but involves a variety of people from the community. 

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Image: Blood and Butchery in Bedminster with Show of Strenght Theatre Company - credit Robin Murray

Smashing down the stereotype of theatre being ‘removed’ from everyday life, Show of Strength are determined to put local people and their stories centre-stage, so to speak. Hidden histories come to life and voices previously obscured are instead celebrated; highlighted by previous productions including ‘Walking The Chains’ which considered the workers behind the building of Clifton Suspension Bridge, and ‘The Wills’ Girls’ – looking at the life of women in one of the local tobacco factories.

Local links and forging positive relationships matters to Show of Strength, as they also take pride in championing new writers and actors from Bristol and the South West, meaning that their shows are a chance to see talent at its freshest… and its most innovative! Locally-relevant yet thinking outside the box, previous performances have pushed far beyond Bristol of the current day – including a steampunk space-time journey in the form of The Steampunk Mistress and The Time Machine, in collaboration with Closer Each Day Company and taking place onboard Brunel’s SS Great Britain! Trade it? meanwhile, took viewers back to considering the harsh realities of the slave trade.

This thought-provoking company invites people to consider the city from alternate angles. Be plunged into the action with one of their theatre walks – Show of Strength having a developed a dark and delightful selection that have proved popular. Blood and Butchery in Bedminster stands out – a theatrical walking tour that takes place every Tuesday (from 7pm), leading guests from The Ropewalk on Bedminster Parade to a range of pubs and historic sites around the area, each with their own grisly twist!

And if that wasn’t enough, there is also the ‘Blood Blackbeard and Buccaneers’ tour, pulling participants into the eerie tale of Edward Teach – aka Blackbeard - the infamous pirate who is rumoured to have been born in Bristol, though no records survive. Work out fact and fiction for yourself, as you follow the rumoured course of his footsteps through Redcliffe, the docks and around sections of the city.  

This intriguing approach to theatre makes Show of Strength seriously worth celebrating.

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Image: Blood and Butchery in Bedminster with Sheila Hannon - credit Claire Greville 

Haunt Bristol’s Emily Oldfield spoke to the founder and Creative Producer Shelia Hannon, to find out more about the past, present and future of the company…

Show of Strength was founded in 1986 and strives to connect a diverse range of communities with exciting new theatre, creatives and a range of innovative locations. Why do you think Bristol in particular provides such an interesting location for this?

“When you tell a story in the place where it actually happened it becomes something else entirely.  Bristol is old and Bedminster – where ‘Blood and Butchery in Bedminster’ happens every Tuesday– is even older.  There are lost graveyards tucked away just off the main street and strange Victorian alleyways you can miss altogether.  Even locals who’ve lived here all their lives see – and hear - something new and that’s very exciting.”

Can you give some examples of this relationship in action?

“Our outdoor show Trade it? looked at Bristol’s links with the slave trade and used some fascinating contemporary city centre locations.  Audiences moved through the city with the actors– sometimes it was clearly a performance, sometimes the performer was part of the audience.

Walking The Chains told the story of the building of Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge in the Passenger Shed at Temple Meads Station – the world’s first passenger terminus designed by Brunel. And The Wills’s Girls told the story of the women who worked in Bristol’s tobacco industry – told in the tobacco factory where they once worked.”

Another intriguing example of a past production was Anne Bonny’s Lunchtime Pirate Panto–creatively exploring tales of Bristol’s pirates. Why does exploring local history in alternative ways matter to the company?

“It’s people that make history - dates and facts are dull without the characters behind them. Theatre is about people and their stories, what they do and why they did it – and the lives of small forgotten people are at least as interesting as those of the celebrated and far better known. Bristol’s seafaring history means many ‘local’ stories are also global.  Bristol pirates sailed all over the world and it’s just possible that Ann Bonny – who really existed and was the world’s most famous female pirate – met Bristol’s Blackbeard somewhere in the Caribbean.  We still know very little about those early 18th century pirates so they’re perfect for roistering fictions that interpret what we do know.  Our walking tour of Bristol docks, Blood, Blackbeard and Buccaneers is back in May.”

There also is a spooky side to proceedings – especially in the form of your Blood and Butchery in Bedminster experience, which takes place every Tuesday.  What was the inspiration behind this and are there any stories within it that you think are particularly striking?

“So many of the company’s shows are about local stories and I had a lot of fascinating stuff I hadn’t used.  I’ve collaborated on several projects with the Bedminster Business Improvement District and we planned Blood and Butchery in Bedminster together – turning material I’d collected over a long period into a walking tour exploring Bedminster’s fascinating past.  We also visit several old hostelries along the way – all with fascinating pasts that are part of the tour.  Princess Caraboo is one of my favourites – lots of people have heard of this famous impostor, but how many know she ended her days in Bedminster, collecting leeches in the Malago River and selling them to the Bristol Infirmary?”

Does Bristol carry on surprising you?​

“It certainly does. I’m working on a new Clifton tour and was amazed to discover, only last week, that a cup – said to be the Holy Grail - was kept from some years in Clifton. We’ll be visiting it – well the location – when the tour launches in May as part of Bristol Walk Fest

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Image: Blood and Butchery in Bedminster with Show of Strenght Theatre Company - credit Colin Moody 

Find out more about Show of Strength, including upcoming performances, on the Show of Strength website:

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Take a Blood and Butchery tour in Bedminster
Walking Tour
Bedminster Blood and Butchery Walking Tour - Visit Bristol Show of Strength

Every Tuesday, Blood and Butchery explores the tales of murder, mystery, betrayal and bullion, visiting pubs and landmarks on the way.