ACT gets its act together
Flushed with enthusiasm the newly formed Axbridge Community Theatre looked to staging a play about Axbridge that would fill the town hall – and its empty bank account. In 2004 I penned a satire of the town’s annual charity progressive supper aided and abetted by Tony Wilson, Annabel Hackney and John Bailey. The idea was to follow a couple experiencing problems with their relationship during the course of the evening as they fell out and finally made up during the three courses. Another aspect of the plot was to ensure they didn’t eat anything – a challenge considering the entire evening is dedicated to over indulgence.
To comment on the social does and don’ts were the Progressives, a sort of modern day chorus who chip in with asides and even intervene during the night of highs and lows, puddings and bottles of plonk. One of the trickiest aspects of the drama was to avoid basing any of the characters on real people in the town. Despite steering a careful course of not identifying anyone in particular I was accused by some of lampooning some of the residents in particular the so-called Nazi Nurse. Her name will remain forever a secret – but I still say she doesn’t exist in order to stay out of jail. The cast included the main protagonists Molly and Steve played by Annabel Hackney and Chris Jarman, with Tony Wilson and Janet Holmes as their long suffering partners and Jeff Hill as a pyramid salesman whose marketing evening gets muddled up with one of the courses. I played the beautiful Julie Goode, while future mayor of the town Baz Hamblin played Slop the Butler.
Janie Gray played an over sexed Pam Duse and Pete Harding was the drunken Mr Drink in the chorus. The cast was large as the drama was played out over three courses including extra scenes featuring an assortment of characters associated with the annual event. Since the play’s theme was a social send-up about Axbridge itself, it was perhaps unsurprising that the drama directed by John Bailey filled the town hall with packed audiences and set ACT on a more stable financial footing.
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In 2000 John Bailey directed the Axbridge Pageant staged in the town’s Square in front of an audience of several hundred people over the August bank holiday weekend. It was a huge success with tickets sold out, good TV and radio coverage and positive reviews in the press and media. The original script of the Pageant (and I feel this is not libellous to state) was partly derived from Francis Knight’s book, Heart of Mendip, published in 1915. And there’s the rub. Previous pageants tended to leave the most transforming period of the town’s history out of the play: namely the 20th century.
John and I worked on creating an updated version of the script to include those two monumental socially significant events: the two world wars. For in those two bloody conflicts British society was transformed. New people came to the town either as troops or through work – all adding to the widening gene pool of the residents. Social barriers were broken down as people had to work together and women increasingly entered the workplace. This collaboration helped to not only update the pageant but also to give rise to ACT’s first play: Romans, Rioters and Rotters in 2002.
The idea that there should be drama group in the town following the pageant came to fruition with the foundation of Axbridge Community Theatre by John Bailey and a core group of people who had been involved in the pageant and The House of the Square play in 1999. I wrote a series of sketches loosely based on the pageant in a sort of condensed comic version of the play – but with the intention of lampooning some of the themes of the once-every-ten-years play. So Queen Henrietta Maria was seen as a money grabbing aristo on her visit to the town rather than the stately monarch’s wife, the Ancient Britons were sophisticated camp designers attempting to get the Romans interested in woad, and the Vikings and the Saxons played football rather than made war.
The Chronicler role was reprised from the pageant, along with the Narrator plus a new character in the Jester. The play was staged in the Town Hall, at St Michael’s Cheshire Home and in a garden party in Cross with Tony Welch keeping order as stage manager. My lasting memory of the open air venue was our battle with the noise of geese and the traffic on the A38! However the play was well received especially in the Town Hall – although we didn’t charge ticket money. It was all free, meaning ACT was effectively skint as an organisation.
Next time: ACT gets its act together.
The town of Axbridge had staged at least three large scale pageants in the Square celebrating its history when the year 2000 approached. Mayor Edith Channon was keen to keep the tradition of the large scale drama alive and approached John Bailey to take on the role of artistic director for the production. In the late 1960s the former railway line (better known as the Strawberry Line) that ran along the northern edge of the town had been converted into a bypass thus ending years of traffic jams in Axbridge.
The result was a much quieter town centre with the Square relieved of congestion and long queues of cars and lorries backing up the High Street and along St Mary Street. To celebrate a group of drama enthusiasts put together the first Axbridge Pageant using the Square as its stage. A procession of Ancient Britons, Romans, Saxons, Normans, Tudors and Victorians acted out scenes from the town’s history in front of an enthusiastic audience. The event was a huge success and led to further productions in 1970, 1980 and 1990.
With only months to go before 2000 the town needed fresh blood. The previous director Anne Griffith had stepped down and planned to move from the town leaving a creative void. Step forward John Bailey, a qualified drama teacher and perhaps just as important, someone who would not be at work during the month of August due to the school holidays.
In 1996 I had moved to the town with my family from Bristol and enthusiastically joined in with the town’s social life organising a pantomime in two successive years and taking an interest in the plans for the pageant. My contribution was to write a short promotional play called the House on the Square which would be performed one evening at the Town Hall in order to enthuse the residents with the forthcoming pageant. More importantly it was to highlight the need for volunteers and actors to take part.
Based on an idea that there had been homes located on the Square since Saxon times the story featured a young couple planning to set up home in the town. Each scene moved them on in time beginning with a wattle and daub home and a thatched roof all the way up to the dubious activity of gazumping and buying homes through the offices of estate agents. Jeff Hill and Jackie Turner played the young couple with a cast largely made up from the previous actors from the recent pantomimes. The play was directed by Caroline Johnson and co-directed by John Bailey. It goes without saying the play went very well with a new generation coming forward to support the pageant a few months later. As the curtain went up on the evening it is fair to say that the seed of Axbridge Community Theatre had been sown.