In 1963 the former Cheddar Valley Railway often called The Strawberry Line was closed after almost a century of use. A few years later the line above the town was turned into the bypass ending the traffic jams that had dogged the town for years. To celebrate a pageant was proposed to chart the town’s history in the square soon after. It was a huge success prompting further pageants in 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010. Each time the Square was turned into a vast arena and stage – to portray the long and extraordinary story of the town through drama, spectacle and pageantry. And so we gather once again in August 2020 to maintain this tradition – that in its own way has also become part of the town’s history. The website will carry news, views and features about the pageant and will carry photos of the past productions and updates on the next one on August bank holiday weekend in 2020.
Pack your suitcase, grab your hockey stick and take the train from the Passenger Shed at Bristol’s Temple Mead railway station for Malory Towers this summer writes Harry Mottram.
The cavernous building is the venue for a production of the boarding school adventures inspired and abridged from Enid Blyton’s novels. Bursting with teenage hormonally powered enthusiasm, Emma Rice’s breathless script and Alistair David’s superb choreography it is a hugely enjoyable family show. And a production that brings all aspects of theatre together to create a show that is seamless, slick and creatively contemporary. There’s no whiff of the stuffy class based society of the era it was originally set in.
Singer Stephanie Hockley on piano was given support by Vinnie Heaven on drums and Mirabelle Gremaud on harp to accompany the songs performed throughout including the Malory Towers Hymn: “A place to live and prosper, a community and a family where we build our precious futures.”
Rebecca Collingwood in particular as angry bad girl Gwendoline excelled with her solos including Daddy’s Little Girl, while the cast as a whole filled the pop-up theatre with strong voices without the use of mics. Pat Ballard’s Mr Sandman was one of a number of songs arranged by Nigel Lilley that enchanted an audience that applauded each song and gave the show a standing ovation at the end. Edith Piaf’s Mon Manege A Moi arranged by Ian Ross was another set piece that blended wit, harmony and choreography with the students converting the classroom into a French bistro. A scene that also showcased Lez Brotherston’s set and costumes and Alistair David’s choreography and Ian Ross’s musical direction.
Perfect comedy timing came from Francesca Mills as sensible Sally Hope and Rebecca Collingwood’s teen rage and bullying vindictiveness as Gwendoline was so committed that when she told the audience at the interval to return to their seats they did so immediately. Versatile Vinnie Heaven doubled up as Bill and as a modern school girl in the opening scene that acted as a framing device for the drama.
Izuka Hoyle as the novel’s original hero Darrell Rivers gave a more realistic contemporary tone to her character given her flashes of temper and attempts to reveal the wickedness of Gwendoline. Poor Mary Lou played by Rose Shalloo had the task of being beaten, bullied and browbeaten by Gwendoline, a role she performed with a combination of comic self-deprecation and playing the victim to perfection.
Mirabelle Gremaud’s musical and acrobatic attributes added greatly to the production as Irene Dupont and Renée Lamb as the joker Alicia added a warmth which softened some of the darker themes.
The double level stage had a blank backdrop screen shaped as the school’s exterior that allowed for projections depicting anything from the railway journey to the seaside as the scenes demanded. The design blended the work of Malcolm Rippeth (lighting) Lez Brotherston (set), Simon Baker (sound and video) and Beth Carter and Stuart Mitchell’s animations.
In her director’s notes Emma Rice pays tribute to her mother’s generation of female school students who following the 1944 Education Act were given free secondary education. It allowed them to have careers and a freedom to excel in their chosen paths in life. Except of course Malory Towers is anything but a state school, but more an escapist fantasy for young readers who can immerse themselves in a parent free world. A private school for 1950s’ rich kids, a world away from the humdrum world of the average state school, most children attended. The privilege of those attending Malory Towers is skated over by Emma Rice but in fairness she does her best to give Blyton’s story a 21st century girl power theme accentuating the culture of hope and tolerance promoted at the cliff top Cornish academy.
It is a drama that revels in the conflicting relationships of the girls as they each resolved their personal crisis with the help of friends and hopefully become women “that the world can lean on.”
The show goes on tour: Cambridge Arts Theatre – 05 September 2019 – 07 September 2019; York Theatre Royal – 10 September 2019 – 14 September 2019; Exeter Northcott Theatre – 17 September 2019 – 21 September 2019; HOME 2 Tony Wilson Place, Manchester – 24 September 2019 – 28 September 2019; Oxford Playhouse – 01 October 2019 – 05 October 2019.
Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more details visitchildrenstheatrereviews.com
Back stage Wendy – helping behind the scenes with ACT
Harry Mottram reports on the funeral service for the bon vivant Wendy Mace of Axbridge who (along with her husband Robin) were part of the ‘greatest sitcom the 1970s never made.’
Sun light streamed through the stained glass windows of St John the Baptist parish church in Axbridge, in Somerset, lighting up the sandstone a golden yellow as the coffin carrying the late Wendy Mace was carried from the church. It had been a memorable, amusingly bitter sweet and ultimately uplifting service presided over by the Reverend Tim Hawkings.
Macbeth: the witches get ready – but can you guess which one is Wendy?
It was about a year since the church had been filled with a near identical audience for Wendy’s Civic Award to mark her work with many of the town’s organisations including the youth theatre group Young ACT. Now the church was again packed with standing room only with friends, family and residents who came to pay tribute to her and her work. Those activities included: the pageant, the youth theatre, the museum, the community theatre group, the book club and the carnival – to name but a few.
Born in 1944 before the D-Day Landings and the final act of World War II in the Kent village of Harrietsham Wendy Mace was a teacher, a thespian, a designer, a youth worker, a mother, wife and grandmother all wrapped into the robes of a party hostess, chef and bon vivant. Before 2002 Wendy lived in the south of England teaching English and Drama at Fernhill School in Hampshire where she lived with her husband Robin and her son Toby.
Civic award: Toby, Wendy and Robin
The funeral was marked by remarkable speeches and tributes, none more powerful than one from her son Toby who spoke of her self-deprecating humour. His voice cracking at times with emotion he related stories which brought laughter and tears of joy. For there is a strange conflict of emotions as bereavement and humour intermingle creating a surreal atmosphere where one moment you laugh with a sudden release of tension before finding your throat has become swollen with emotion and tears fill your eyes. Toby recalled the time she drove her car into a man dressed as a Roundhead at a Civil War re-enactment – who was driving of all things a Vauxhall Cavalier. Laughter he said was her greatest gift as if you can laugh at yourself then nobody can laugh at you, but instead with you. He spoke fondly of how she opened the family home to a variety of guests from around the world when he was a child dubbing her the Greatest Ambassador of Nibbles the United Nations never had, and with his father Robin created a household that should have been turned into a 1970s’ TV sitcom.
Toby’s young son spoke with an assured confidence about his granny and of her love of poetry and in particular Haiku poetry and how she had passed that enthusiasm on to him. He had written four seasonal Haikus with the one for spring reading: “Daffodils appear, lambs are here, it’s that time of year.”
Book Club – raise a glass Wendy – a summer meeting at Dave Parkin’s house
The Reverend Tim Hawkings essentially played the straight man in this production. He hit the right tone balancing empathy, a Christian voice and yes, a quiet anger, at the cruelty of cancer. He reminded those present of the impact Wendy had made with the youth theatre group in the town, her acting career with the theatre group ACT along with her Christingle services that had involved and impressed so many. He described Wendy’s ‘incredible courage’ in the face of the cruel disease and quoted the words of Seneca: “In the presence of death, we must continue to sing the song of life.”
Paul Passey who admitted his life had in part been scripted and directed by Wendy was one of Wendy’s longest friends dating back to teenage years when he and his wife Diana and Wendy’s husband Robin were a happy quartet back in the early 1970s in Hampshire. In his eulogy entitled ‘On the Subject of Winning’ Paul spoke of get-togethers at the Roe Buck Inn, of late nights ending with Wendy’s mum providing nocturnal snacks in her parlour, and it has to be said of incomplete stories of seduction, rivalry and much more. As his mate Colin said there were lots of stories that were not appropriate for church. Using a euphemism for the facts of life used by the nuns at Wendy’s school of two separate canoes mooring together in the river bank of married life Paul played on the idea that as teenagers the foursome had deliberately misconstrued the word canoodling as an extension of the nuns’ idea. They say canoodling and the nuns say canoeing – despite it all the quartet stayed in touch and ended up in Axbridge some 16 years ago.
Janie Gray read one of Wendy’s favourite poems The Scholar and his Cat, Pangue Ban, from a ninth century poem translated by Robin Flower. And the Axbridge Singers (of whom Wendy had been an enthusiastic member) performed En Tout, La Paix Du Coeur (In all, Peace From The Heart) and the melodious Santo, Santo, Santo conducted by Stella More. There was also music by Nigel Hess from the movie Ladies in Lavender and a departing song as Time Goes By from the film Casablanca.
This was one of those occasions when we realise we are all mortal, that despite the hymns and prayers implying life is a just a transient step on the way to an afterlife, we are just a collection of atoms with just one shot at life. It is a bleak conclusion that all but the most fervent believers must face. We can delay the date but we can’t put it off. But in that delay and in that decision – we can make the most of life – and that is perhaps the most important point. Live life is the simple motto. Or as a Scottish proverb underlines: “Be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.”
That does sound dark. But people like Wendy show how while we are alive we can light up the world by simply embracing life, making friends and being ourselves. Dr Samuel Johnson echoed perhaps how Wendy herself may have put it: “It matters not how a man (or woman) dies, but how he (or she) lives.” Or even more succinctly Clarence OddBoddy in the film It’s a Wonderful Life recalls Mark Twain’s words that: “No man (or woman) is a failure who has friends.” You only had to look at the packed church to see the truth is this last statement.
Beauty – or rather Belle – is played by Sara Lessore in this production at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol
Although film versions may cloud the imaginations of audiences for the Tobacco Factory’s Christmas season production of Beauty and the Beast the original story is likely to have evolved several thousand years ago. One theory is that its original theme may be a collective folk memory of our encounters with Neanderthals as we populated Europe after the last Ice Age. How true that is up for debate but like most fairy stories its roots lie in the dark forests of an ancient world. Then wild animals were to be feared, hunted and revered – often being given human characteristics.
The universal story became crystallised when it was incorporated and retold in France in the 18th century in a collection of stories penned by Gabrielle-Suzanne Bardot de Villeneuve after which several versions were published by various authors. Each time the story was embellished by the new writer it was in order to satisfy the growing expectations of potential readers with an eye on sales. Themes include animalistic fantasies associated with ancient folk stories, arranged marriages, sibling jealousy, the desire for wealth and luxury, of not judging people on their looks and of goodness eventually triumphing over evil. These remain at the core of the story but the back story to Beauty’s life as a child in a large family, whether or not she has a suitor before meeting the Beast, and also how the Beast is actually portrayed, vary throughout the numerous TV and film version.
A red rose is the one ingredient that has remained constant within the narrative – a gift of dramatists and designers of posters and programmes. Beauty lives with her impoverished family after their father’s business collapses. He meets the wealthy Beast and makes a promise that his daughter will marry him in order to restore the family fortunes. Beauty’s only wish is not for luxuries but for a red rose as they don’t grow where she lives. Following her visit to the Beast’s house she secretly wishes to return home despite the Beast’s hospitality and romantic overtures. She returns home with a magic mirror and ring. The mirror allows her to see the Beast is dying of heart ache so she returns to the Beast but discovers he is in fact a handsome prince who has been turned into a monster by a magic spell. OK – that’s some of the content of the story – there are several variations so it will be interesting to see this one. The publicity image shows the actor playing Beauty along with a forest and red rose – so those are featured – and it should be said the actor is of course beautiful.
Last year’s dark retelling of Cinderella by the theatre was criticised by this magazine for being aimed too much at adults and being too scary for small children so it will be interesting to see if this play reaches out to five years olds. Directed by Alex Byrne with musical direction by Elliot Davis the cast features Martin Bonger as the Beast and Sara Lessore as Beauty – or rather Belle – the name given to the protagonist in most versions. The Tobacco Factory Theatre has teamed up with New International Encounter and Cambridge Junction for this “mischievous and music-filled co-production.”
It runs from Thursday, 30 November 2017 to Sunday 14 January 2018.
Sian takes a bow at the end of the show with applause from the cast for her performance as Hester
The Deep Blue Sea. Axbridge Town Hall
Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, Hester Collyer has to choose between her stuffy wealthy husband Sir William Collyer or her washed up drunken charmer and one time fighter pilot and lover Freddie Page for whom the world stopped at the height of the Battle of Britain.
Terence Rattigan’s marital crisis drama set in 1950s London is a surprise. Not the emotionally constipationally afflicted story of stiff upper lip middle class suburbia but the eternal battles of uneven relationships in which the protagonist in the partnerships desires change.
As protagonists go Sian Tutill as the manipulative, confused and depressed Hester gave one of the best demonstrations of character acting you will see outside of professional theatre. Totally convincing from the moment she attempts to gas herself to the climactic final scene as she wrestles with the trauma that her love affair with Freddie may be over. Tutill convinces as a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown – using her body, face, voice and hands – she gives a magnetic performance. Anguished and agonised with Rattigan’s articulate dialogue this is a very 21st century study of how we feel in a relationship that’s going nowhere and not the period piece it can be.
Chris Jarman as Freddie and Tony Wilson as his chummy ex RAF mate Jackie Jackson appeared to have missed the privations of 1950s’ rationing and perhaps were little too senior in years to have been so recently discharged from flying Spitfires but as voices they sounded right. In fact this would work well as a radio play as there is little action apart from the odd door slamming and clinking of whisky glasses. Despite Tutill’s dominating stage persona Jarman held his own in their powerful one to one scenes. His final pitiful emotional self flagellatorypronouncement that: “It’s written in great bloody letters of fire over our heads – ‘you and I are death to each other’” thus potentially spelling the end of the affair was delivered with feeling and to many will chime as an accurate take on relationships that have gone past their sell by date.
Maggie Stanley made a robust and believable landlady as Mrs Elton and Phil Saunders gave a strong performance as Hester’s dry old stick of a legal bigwig husband. Then there was the very odd couple in Ann and Philip Welch played by Nigel Newton (great suit) and Diane Lukins (great hair). Well, odd in the sense as to who would want these two studies in embarrassment as neighbours? Both were wonderfully awkward and suitably stiff from the moment they offered to help out at a suicide attempt and went on to say all the wrong things – bless them. As symbols of how out of touch 1950s Britain was to the issue of mental health, marital problems or expressing true feelings they couldn’t have been better.
And praise too for David Parkin as the helpful Mr Miller, bookie and sometime unofficial doctor whose Germanic accent didn’t slip and whose charm began to melt the brittle exterior of the slightly unhinged Hester. Here was a character of his time – could he have been a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany trying to make a living as a Bookie’s clerk? A nice touch from Rattigan – today he’d be more likely be a Kurd or a Syrian. He’s there as the antidote to a society obsessed with social norms – ahead of his time.
These inflections, minor characters and themes come from a playwright who in his own time could not fully be himself as he was gay. The Deep Blue Sea written in 1952 has been interpreted as a coded drama of ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ but in truth it feels more like a story about grown-ups for grown-ups without gimmicks or twists of plot. A play anyone in a relationship will immediately understand.
Directed by John Bailey and produced by John Kendall this Axbridge Community Theatre version of Rattigan’s play is an excellent piece of work by the director and his cast marking a further development of the company.
It’s a long and emotional without any theatrics, and yet as the arguments unravel we see more than a glimpse of our own relationships articulated by a cast keen to highlight the dialogue that hasn’t aged and continues to give.
The play runs to Saturday, November 25th, 2017, at Axbridge Town Hall.