An enthusiastic group of Zoomers joined us on Thursday January 20 for a thoroughly enjoyable read-through of Five Farces, our May 2022 production. With all 5 directors in attendance it was a chance for wannabe cast members to familiarise themselves with the 5 plays before auditions in February. The plays (adapted by Richard Brown) are a real hoot and sure provide a great night of entertainment for audiences when the production runs from May 12 to 14. If you’d like to audition or help out backstage or front of house or in any other way then head to the Get Involved page to find out how.
There is a human detritus swirling around in the backwaters of the welfare state which nobody seems able to do anything about. Society and its public servants want passionately to do something – but somehow they can’t.Cathy Come Home review – The Guardian, 17th November 1966
If part of art’s power is its capacity to draw attention to issues faced in contemporary society, if a portion of its purpose is to throw a lens upon those on the margins, if – in egalitarian spirit – it can explore the emotions and experiences of people from all backgrounds – then plays like Cathy are fitting and timely. Following the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the UK government enacted austerity measures which, though perhaps made in good faith, have come at a cost. Reductions in government spending have seen social services struggling under increasing pressure and those on low incomes have found it all the more difficult to get by.
First performed in 2016, Ali Taylor’s play is actually a modern re-telling of an older drama. The inspiration was Cathy Come Home, a 1966 made-for television play written by Jeremy Sandford and directed by Ken Loach. Over thirty years later, it was still recalled as an important piece of TV; in 1998 a Radio Times poll declared it to be the “best single television drama” and two years later an industry poll voted it as the second best British programme ever made.
The story follows the lives of a young couple, Cathy and Reg, who initially have a good standard of living due to Reg’s well-paying job. Circumstances soon turn against them, however, as an injury sustained in the workplace leads to Reg’s unemployment and Cathy’s pregnancy means they can no longer stay in their flat, since the building does not permit children. With the loss of Reg’s income, the couple are now unable to find affordable accommodation. Despite periods of alleviation, their luck continues to spiral, and the growing family eventually finds themselves squatting in an abandoned building.
At that time, subjects such as homelessness and unemployment received very little in the way of media attention. This may have been partly due to the post-war economic boom which ushered in an age of prosperity for Britain, with the 1950s and 1960s seeing wages and living standards rise for many. It is estimated that wages rose by approximately 40% between 1950 and 1965. Luxury items were no longer only the preserve of the wealthiest; those on lower incomes could afford them. In 1959, Queen magazine announced that Britain had “launched into an age of unparalleled lavish living” and historian R J Unstead’s appraisal was similarly positive. “Opportunities in life, if not equal, were distributed much more fairly than ever before and the weekly wage-earner, in particular, had gained standards of living that would have been almost unbelievable in the thirties.”
This era of general prosperity perhaps led to nationwide complacency when it came to regarding the problems of those who still fell between the cracks. Even in times of unimagined growth, there will still be a minority who, sometimes through no fault of their own, fall upon hard times. Subsequently, those who struggled to get by in the post-war decades found their plight largely ignored – but Cathy Come Home changed that. Watched by approximately twelve million people (which at the time was roughly twenty-five percent of the country’s population) it prompted telephone calls to the BBC from viewers who had been impacted and caused discussion of homelessness in Parliament. As a result, Conservative MPs William Shearman and Iain Macleod led a publicity campaign which drew even more attention to the experiences of the homeless and the charity ‘Crisis’ was formed the following year.
Fifty years later, Ali Taylor’s Cathy is just as hard-hitting and thought-provoking as the play it is based upon. It does not shy away from the lengths to which some people are forced to turn towards in order to shelter and protect themselves – the squalor and hardship that Cathy and her daughter experience are unapologetically spotlighted, providing an unsettling window into the harsh and dismal circumstances into which their lives descend. But for all the depiction of unpleasantness, a grain of hope runs throughout the tale, barely visible at times, but always present in the minutest sense – serving, perhaps, as a reminder that in our darkest moments, hope is our single sustainer, and is possibly the only thing that the homeless can really call their own.
by Michelle Gibson, November 2019
Originally published in the Cathy programme
A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The title alone informs the audience that they are entering a world quite unlike their own, one in which conventional rules do not apply. Fleeting and whimsical, dreams are a happy respite from the stultifying order of everyday existence. Similarly, the play creates a realm in which different laws are at work. Laws that are predicated around the reality of magic and the existence of fairies.
Gentle and humorous, A Midsummer Night’s Dream weaves its spell so subtly that an audience can believe fairy interference to be the most natural thing in the world. We all, of course, suspend disbelief when viewing a work of fiction, but my experience of watching the play goes beyond that: I feel myself fully inhabiting a world in which a magical worldview is the norm and the mild, teasing uncertainty of what is and is not real pokes, like tendrils, into my life engagement at large. Just like the play itself, what is ultimately “reality” is in question. One lesson I take away from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that, in some cases, if we can never know for sure what is real and what is not, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is the possibilities to be explored, the ideas to be considered and the creative and intellectual stimulation provided from an open approach.
Some have noted the disparity between the use of magic in the play and societal attitudes at the time of its writing. Since the decimation of the witchcraft-practicing communities of Pagan Britain and the establishment of the Church as the single spiritual authority, attitudes towards the practice of magic had typically been hostile: it was regarded as innately sinister and performed only for evil intent. Shakespeare’s use of magic, however, is much more benevolent; Puck is pure mischief, with no real malice, and the spells used, while creating confusion and chaos, ultimately cause no real harm. Any potential disaster – such as the suggested duel between Lysander and Demetrius – is averted by the fairies, and all is restored to rights in the end. Shakespeare even has the fairies use magic explicitly for good; in the final stage of the play, they perform a blessing for the human characters. This reflects a more nuanced view of magic than is commonly accredited to the time period – that magic is morally neutral and can be used for both good and bad. It can cause harm but also repair harm. Or it can simply be light-hearted and fun.
This perspective may seem incongruous when looked at in the context of the prevailing views of the time, but exceptions existed even within that narrow way of thinking. Cunning folk, or folk healers, who essentially practiced spells and other forms of witchcraft, were common throughout Britain, and it was not unusual for people to turn to them for their health needs or for positive magical acts such as protection spells. John Dee, adviser to Elizabeth I and therefore one of the most powerful individuals of his age, was heavily involved in the practice of occultism, including attempts to contact and channel disembodied entities – his famous scrying equipment can still be seen on display in the British Museum. It has also been suggested that The Tempest’s Prospero may have been inspired directly by Dee. If you searched hard enough, you could find pockets of society that not only tolerated magic but actually celebrated and practiced it – was this what Shakespeare was drawing upon when he penned A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Ultimately, I believe that the magic is a large part of what makes A Midsummer Night’s Dream so popular and enduring – its prodding and twisting and bending of what is possible, its acting as instrument for delivery from the impersonally structured sequences of everyday living. The ambiguous nature of the tale is a reflection of some of the deepest philosophical questions – some things, people can never know for sure, and that is perfectly all right.
Fear not. All amateurs are not the same,
Some Little Theatres higher standards claim
And hold with fervour nigh obsessional
That amateurs are better than professional
– Michael Green – ‘The Art of Coarse Acting’
It’s not always the case that a play’s plot is summed up by the title alone, but A Bunch of Amateurs is exactly that: the story of an amateur theatre group in their quest to stage a production of King Lear, the lead role of which has been given to a fading Hollywood star. Whilst most of the Stratford Players are thrilled to be treading the boards with a celebrity, the star in question is initially dismayed to discover that, contrary to his expectations, he has not joined the cast of a well-known professional outfit.
Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s script takes a comical look at the personalities and pitfalls of amateur dramatics. As many involved in am-dram would admit, it’s easy to poke fun at the subject – both the types of individuals you come across and the mini disasters that are liable to raise their heads when you have neither the luxury of paid professionals or owning your own theatre. Whether it’s star-struck Mary fawning over her Hollywood idol, pomposity-exuding Nigel fuming over losing out on a lead role that he believes should be his by rights, or director Dorothy’s flustered attempts to keep her cast in order, the drama involved in staging a show is laid bare.
Affectionate mockery of amateur theatre is commonplace, with one of the funniest takes on the matter being Michael Green’s 1964 publication of The Art of Coarse Acting (Or How to Wreck an Amateur Dramatic Society). Green, himself an amateur performer of many years, based the title on his experiences with Northampton Drama Club and the Questors Theatre, exposing the mishaps and mistakes which the public holds as stereotypical of the field. A coarse actor, Green explains, “is an actor who can remember his lines but not the order in which they come. An amateur. One who performs in Church Halls. Often the scenery will fall down. Sometimes the Church Hall may fall down. Invariably his tights will fall down.” How to tell when we have fallen victim to the scourge of course acting? Green informs us – “one of the infallible signs that Coarse Drama is going on is the fact that the traditional roles of actor and audience are reversed. The actor is being himself while the audience are playing a part, heavily pretending to enjoy the show, struggling to laugh at unfunny jokes and so on.”
But it is inaccurate to conclude that Hislop and Newman’s play is purely a facile lampoon of amateur acting. Much of what makes the story so endearing is that, suffused amongst the laughter and ridicule, is obvious affection for am-dram and its virtues. Whatever their failings, the characters are quite sincere in both their passion for theatre and determination to keep their small but dedicated group in business. As well as drawing humour from the follies of the non-professional performing world, A Bunch of Amateurs reflects the less well-known truths of amateur dramatics; that such groups often draw enthusiastic, talented and dedicated individuals whose commitment to upholding the arts in their communities is to be admired.
Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki summarised the importance of all art in a passage from Kusamakura. “If this best of worlds proves a hard one for you, you must simply do your best to settle in and relax as you can, and make this short life of ours, if only briefly, an easier place in which to make your home. Herein lies the poet’s true calling, the artist’s vocation. We owe our humble gratitude to all practitioners of the arts, for they mellow the harshness of our human world and enrich the human heart.”
In an age in which significant reductions have been made to public spending on the arts, the presence of amateur performers is perhaps more keenly felt than ever. While we laugh at the antics inside the drama society of Stratford-St-John, we are simultaneously reminded of the cultural blessings such outlets provide, and the hard work, vigour and diligence of all those who come together to ensure their communities can enjoy the gift of artistic exhibitions.
By Michelle Gibson (this piece will also appear in the programme for A Bunch of Amateurs)
Sunday 10th April 1955 – Easter Sunday to be precise. Bleary-eyed Britons were wakened by the peal of church bells. Christians reflected upon the resurrection. Slavering children avariciously attacked their hordes of Easter eggs. And in South Hall Park, Hampstead, a woman armed with a 38. Calibre Smith and Wesson revolver fired four successive bullets into her lover.
The woman was Ruth Ellis, the lover David Blakely. Ellis had a chequered history, beginning with her childhood experience of rape at the hands of her father. Thus, the first Ellis ever knew of sexual relationships not only took place at a hideously inappropriate age, but was informed by domination, pain and abuse. This unhappy pattern was to continue into her adult life, resulting in a short-lived marriage to an aggressive alcoholic.
It was in 1953 that Fate would entwine the lives of Ellis and Blakely, leading to the two-year courtship which would end in tragedy. From its inception, their relationship was beset with problems, a dangerous mixture of passion and jealousy. Both possessed powerful feelings for the other, but neither seemed able to commit. They continued to see other people and their own relationship increasingly descended into patterns of envy and physical violence – one such interaction leading to Ruth suffering a miscarriage after David had punched her in the stomach. And so went the unhealthy cycle, until – on that unsuspecting Easter evening – there came the dramatic denouement, when Ruth Ellis approached David Blakely outside a pub and shot him dead.
At this point, capital punishment was still the sentence passed down for murder. There is an understandable, if cold, logic to this train of thought; the idea that intentionally taking a life – and the grief this causes for many – should be met with the forfeiture of the culprit’s own life. But its history goes farther than that; capital punishment had in the past been the sentence for other crimes, some much more minor by comparison, to the extent that the term “Bloody Code” is a modern term for Britain’s legal system as it stood in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By 1800, there were no fewer than 220 crimes which could be punished by death, including the act of being in the company of gypsies for a month and the theft of goods valued at as little as 12 pence – roughly £12.60 in today’s currency.
Unsurprisingly, the harshness of the system brought calls for reform, beginning in 1808 when Sir Samuel Romilly had the death sentence abolished for minor offences such as pickpocketing. From this, a series of further changes spurred; in 1861 the number of offences liable to result in capital punishment stood at just five, treason and murder being amongst them.
At the time of Ruth Ellis’ trial, the death penalty for murder was still more than a decade away from being abolished. However, there was discussion amongst the media and the public over whether her case warranted such punishment, or even whether she should have been charged with the lesser crime of manslaughter. The violence she had suffered at the hands of David Blakely was suggested as grounds for a reprieval from hanging, with many feeling that a custodial sentence would have been more appropriate. It is often said that by the standards of the law today, Ruth Ellis would have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder.
However, the trial must be viewed through the lens of the law at the time – and within the framework of the legal system then, it can be argued that there was no other option but to find her guilty of murder. It must also be said that Ellis herself did little to help her case; she herself stated that she did not want a reprieve from the death sentence and seemed to believe that her punishment was just. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” she remarked. In light of this, there has been speculation that, after killing her lover, Ellis willed death upon herself so that she might continue to be with him, that perhaps even the murder itself was her way of ensuring that she and Blakely would never be parted.
In a letter to Blakely’s grieving mother, Ellis wrote, “I have always loved your son and I shall die still loving him.” Could this hint at the agenda behind the events of that fateful Easter Sunday? Was David Blakely’s death just the first tragic act in a greater drama? Had Ruth Ellis already chosen the conclusion when she pulled the trigger? Could she have intended all along for the chain of events to close in the way that she wanted – her own consignment to death – her delivery back to David Blakely for eternity?
By Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson. This piece will also appear in the programme for ‘The Thrill Of Love’.
Three days before opening night? How did that happen? It feels like only last week that we were auditioning! These are the thoughts going through mine and other cast members’ heads as we surge towards Thursday. The time has simply zipped by.
Rehearsals are very much a process of evolution and discovery. We learn what works and what doesn’t, develop our strengths and work on our weaknesses. Provided with the basic building blocks – our scripts – it’s our job to assemble the play into a piece of physical art, to infuse the dialogue with passion and energy. From the first tentative baby steps taken in the early stages, we’ve grown into confident, expressive strides – and, like adding the final pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, there comes a strong sense of achievement from surveying the finished product.
I find getting to grips with your character to be one of the most interesting challenges of acting. It’s very difficult to give a worthwhile performance unless you really KNOW the person whom, to all intents and purposes, you’re grafting upon your consciousness. With the aid of director and cast, I’ve come to understand not only my character’s personality, but also his temperament, deportment and his relationships with the other characters. As we approach the very end of our rehearsal process, I think we’re all at a point at which we are very well acquainted with our characters, the transition from one identity to the other being easy.
As always, the cast has been augmented by an excellent backstage team. For the first time, the club has enlisted the services of a stage manager, whose copious notes and methodical sensibilities have helped us flighty actors adhere to the structure. We’ve also been fortunate enough to get some stunning costumes, tailor-made for each individual. Staging a production – especially one of this size – is a wonderfully cooperative endeavour, each person having their own important contribution.
So here we are. I’m feeling a mixture of nerves, excitement, anticipation, all accompanied by the sadness of knowing that this time next week, it will all be over. The dreaded ‘post-show-blues’ will set in for a few days, but remedied somewhat by the fact that work on our next production, ‘The Memory of Water’ will start very shortly after ‘The Madness of George III’ ends.
Just like last year, I’ve had a great time – and am all geared up to go out there and break a leg! (Not literally…)
by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson
It’s been quite a year for the club – one that has taken us from a Beverley Hills hotel room (California Suite) to a seemingly cosy, quiet patch of ‘Little Britain’ (Neighbourhood Watch) via the pre-fabricated, industrious huts of Bletchley Park (Breaking The Code). Ticket sales this year have increased with every production and our Autumn show smashed through that magic number of 300 in online sales alone.
Now we want to take this momentum through to 2016 where two of our three plays are already in place – Mark Hebert will direct ‘The Madness of George III’ by Alan Bennett which will be our Spring production & for our summer show Josephine Hussey will make her directorial debut with ‘The Memory Of Water’ by Shelagh Stephenson. The autumn play will also be announced in the very near future & a director is already lined up to take charge of that one. In April I’ll be taking all three of our directors to a workshop at the Donmar Warehouse in London, where we’ll find out how the professionals run a rehearsal room.
The success of ‘Breaking The Code’ in July proved that there is an audience here in Huntingdon with an appetite for challenging theatre, who are prepared to take a risk and try something a little different from the norm. We have taken this on board, whilst always remembering that first & foremost we are here to entertain and that a night at the theatre should be interesting, thought-provoking & stimulating but most of all enjoyable. Our 2016 season will provide all those things.
Another very exciting project in 2016 will see us performing at the Cambridge Drama Festival in April. It will be a great opportunity & challenge for our cast & crew to perform in a new venue, to a wholly different audience. With our increasing ticket sales we are also adding matinee performances next year. We think the added choice of a daytime performance will be popular with local community members and it also offers our cast an extra performance. Many a time have I heard the comment “three performances just aren’t enough”!
So, lots to look forward to in both the immediate and long term future. Auditions for the Spring play are in January and you can find more info here. On the social front we are heading to Milton Keynes in February to see our good friend Richard James in the touring production of David Walliams’ ‘Gangsta Granny’. For now, have a wonderful Christmas & here’s to the ‘madness’ in 2016!
A review of our Meet and Greet by Josephine Hussey
On 19 March we had our first social gathering since the AGM and the new committee were elected. We ventured to the Falcon in Huntingdon for a drink and a chance for everyone to meet the committee.
Our meet and greet was an enjoyable evening. Lots of members turned up and we spent the hours in the pub swopping ideas for what we want to happen with the club and productions over the next year.
It was great to see people were excited by some of the ideas thought up for social and the other aspects of our group. It was also fun to chat, get to know more people and feel the enthusiasm other members have for the club.
Our next social is a play reading of ‘Noises Off’ at St Mary’s Parish Hall in Huntingdon on 16 April. Come along and enjoy reading and listening to a very funny play.
We’re just over a month into rehearsals for ‘California Suite’ and, as to be expected from a play which is primarily a comedy, it’s a lot of fun. If the amusement from the cast and director can be any kind of barometer, then come 23rd April, the audience will be rolling in the aisles.
Having attended all of the Drama Club’s productions in the last year, I’m by now no stranger to the high-calibre performances that are always delivered, so it came as no surprise to find that my fellow cast members were a wonderfully skilled group.
Like as I would to extol the virtues of every actor, doing so would turn this blog post into a dissertation. So for now, suffice it to say that the interplay between Tony and Caroline is splendid, Scott is putting on a delightfully furious show as the indignant Mort, and Dean is going to have everyone in stitches with his portrayal of the hapless, panicked Marvin.
It’s great to be a part of it all. I look forward to seeing the play really come together in future rehearsals.