Review – Aftermath, IMMERSE Company and Actors’ Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 13th February 2015

AftermathThe centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has sparked a great deal of worldwide interest over the past few months. Not only the moving ceremonies held in France that we all watched on television, but also there have been many local exhibitions, services, and other commemorations up and down the country, bringing back the reality of the horror of that war to today’s generations. Last year the Royal and Derngate added to this remembrance with the excellent new adaptation of Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Daniel Bye had also explored some aspects of the effects of war in his Story Hunt that we enjoyed last year; and now he is back in Northampton with a new project, assembling a play from the both the knowledge and indeed the understandable ignorance of war from the performers, drawn from workshops with both the Royal and Derngate’s Actors’ Company and their Youth group.

There’s hardly anyone left alive who experienced first-hand the 1914-18 War. There aren’t many whose parents did. Therefore it’s not surprising that the day to day details of what life was like during that period are becoming progressively sketchier. Of course we still have literature and film to remind us, original news coverage and a wealth of history books, but there’s nothing like actually listening to someone who was there to have the utmost authority on the subject. So our understanding of what happened in the war is inevitably going to decrease in the future, and it’s constructive and educational – as well as dramatic – to have plays like Aftermath being created to fill that gap. By participating in such plays both as performers and audience, we remember the sacrifice made by those who died in that war; and we try our hardest to create a world where such a war no longer exists – sadly, not always successfully.

12 Section, 'D' Company, 6th Service Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment 1915.The youth company and the adult company dovetail together perfectly to bring together a deliberately stagey experience. Whilst the older members of the cast sit silently on their chairs at the beginning of the play, groups of young people scattered around the auditorium start having a conversation about what the First World War means to them – and to what extent they were confused by the names, dates and facts about both World Wars. It was a brilliant theatrical device! When the initial conversation started in one of the boxes I was really taken in at first – if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were being subtly illuminated I really would have thought it was a question of young people not knowing how to behave in the theatre! My bad. I think there were a couple of audience members who hadn’t twigged and got shirty at the youngsters, so well done for conning them so convincingly!

This led into the opening scene, a vaudevillian music hall act hosted by Frank and Maisie, with a lot of I Say, I Say, I Say about it – think The Good Old Days meets Passchendaele. Juxtaposing old fashioned comedy with the general tragedy of war shows that, often, humour is the only way you can get through the really bad times. It also allows a continuation of the already established blurred relationship between what’s the play and who’s the audience, as our two Music Hall stars are very much doing it for the crowd, like any comedians. It also became the main structure holding the whole play together.

It turns out that the two kids who first start talking are the grandchildren of an older man and his lady friend – the kids don’t seem to recognise her – who have gone back to France to try to piece together the final days of his own grandfather who died somewhere on the front and to find his grave. There they are greeted by the locals as wartime heroes themselves, so grateful are they for the sacrifices made by their liberators. As they go off on their quest, Dave the grandfather finds the grave and, in his imagination at least, is reunited with his own dying grandfather, and can himself come to terms with what happened as a result. The young people too can witness for themselves the personal aspect of what otherwise might just be a dusty history lesson.

Barratts Factory NorthamptonI’d never really contemplated before the local-ness (for want of a better word) of the groups of men who went out to fight. Of course, I’ve understood the concept of regiments, and I know the stories and scenarios of the recruiting officers hiring their cannon fodder on a local basis, but it wasn’t really until I saw this play, with the scenes of friends and relatives all signing up together in the pub, mainly from Northampton, teasing each other about the uselessness of their local football team (some things never change), that I really got a sense of the camaraderie that must have been in place when whole groups of families and friends signed up together, fought together, died together, came home together. That was a very effective aspect of this play.

It’s probably the use of nearby locations that drives that local connection home all the more. There’s a scene where all the women left behind are working in the boot factory, making the boots for the soldiers on the front (that’s how Northampton made its international mark, as I’m sure you know). There’s plenty of scope for rivalry and friendship to rub along together in that factory setting. 16 year old Eddie meets 23 year old Elizabeth at the Racecourse just before he goes off to fight (they were meant to be at least 19, but a mixture of self-sacrificial heroism and official blind-eyes meant that age was really no barrier). They swap details and agree to write to each other. You see Eddie go off to war and get injured, whilst still optimistically writing to Elizabeth (although not to his mother, apparently!) Whether or not he were to survive the war, there would be no future for them – she looked on it as no more than some kind of civic duty, whereas he held the promise of a future together as being a driving force to cling on to. These scenes were performed with great sensitivity and were very moving.

Meanwhile, back at the front, there’s a field hospital run by a no-nonsense Matron and new girl Elsie has arrived to start working as a nurse, with woefully little experience but lots of keenness. It’s not long before Elsie is an old-hand at dispensing care. We see Eddie, trying to maintain his good humour, the poor man with the appalling gas gangrene who’s not going to hang on much longer, and Dmitri, the communist, applying political theory and logic to a desperate humanitarian situation where you can’t make sense of anything. And we meet George. There were a number of personal sagas that we caught a glimpse of during Aftermath – but maybe none more acute than the story of George, wounded at war with a complete loss of memory, so that he could not identify himself to the medical team caring for him. Back home his wife grieves at his presumed death, but George’s cousin Enoch steps in, looks after her and their children, and they slowly become romantically attached. There’s a beautiful scene where she glories in the fact that Enoch has bought her an engagement ring and they are blissfully happy together. Then George reappears, his memory having finally returned, to discover his wife is now with his cousin. Do they revert to the original relationships, or do they stick with Plan B?

Northamptonshire Regiment Territorial Cap BadgeThere were no programmes available so I can’t identify any particular performers with their roles – although I did recognise a few faces from previous productions, and I’m sure the grandfather was played by Mr Church from the old independent china shop on St Giles’, sadly no longer in operation. Members of both companies gave excellent performances and Mrs Chrisparkle and I were both particularly impressed at the standard of the singing – there’s a lot of musical harking back to those old wartime numbers. There were just three performances of Aftermath, but the memory of some of those personal stories will linger for a long time. A very moving and rewarding production.

Review – Story Hunt, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th June 2014

Story HuntA few years ago Mrs Chrisparkle and I went on a walk about Northampton entitled Town My Town, where a group of us, led by the R&D’s Storyteller Jo Blake Cave, encountered historical townspeople and learned about the area’s hidden past by means of a very clever narrative and the subtle introduction of additional characters as we walked around. I neglected to blog it at the time, which I regret now, because it was a very fine example of how you can take theatre outdoors and literally walk around with it. I shall never forget the shock when the man Jo sat next to on the church bench suddenly started to address us out of the blue. A veritable coup de theatre!

So, naturally, I wondered if Story Hunt would be more of the same – and indeed if any of the content in Town My Town would be repeated. It sounds a bit obvious just to say that they were “similar but different”, but in fact that’s just what they were. We wandered round the town, treading some paths less frequently trod – indeed we discovered two expanses of green in the town centre that we’d never stumbled upon before, during almost six years of living here – and heard some fascinating stories from the town’s history and about its notable inhabitants, and with some intriguing conjecture about the future too. Unlike Town My Town, there were no surprise meetings with people like a wild John Clare, the ubiquitous girl sitting in a Subway café or the avuncular barman at The Bantam pub. Instead there was greater interactivity between us the inquisitive locals, and our host, guide and storyteller Daniel Bye.

Outside All SaintsAny crossover in content between Story Hunt and Town My Town would be accidental, as the stories had been collected by Daniel and his director/partner in crime Sarah Punshon a few weeks previously, when they had set up a stall in the Market Square and asked passers-by to give their recollections of recent history and to relate any major incidents or stories of notable characters in the town’s past that they knew about. Daniel and Sarah went away and did further research, and came up with this unique collection of reminiscences. Even so, there were some elements that made both shows – the fire that swept through the town in 1675, the poet John Clare, and the wartime aircraft that ended up in Gold Street. But they’re all fascinating anyway, and the presentation was completely different, so it was good to be reminded of these people and events.

We met Daniel in the theatre as he strode over to meet our little group for the 5.30pm slot on Sunday – the last, in fact, of the scheduled twelve town walks. Daniel is an instantly likeable chap with a spring in his step and a boundless enthusiasm for his subject, and a voice as big as his personality. With his red trousers, blue trilby and colourful Icelandic cardy he’d stand out in any crowd – perfect credentials for someone who’s going to lead you through some busy streets. If in doubt – follow the hat. Within a few minutes of meeting him, he had already got our imaginations working and we were back in the 1950s, as the Derngate bus station was about to be demolished; and back in the 1920s too, wishing a determined wannabe beau ask out a young lady for the third time – this time with success. That would be typical of the little personal touches we would encounter all over town.

Daniel ByeIn many of the scenes we got personally involved as characters, which helped us to get closer to the action. I was to be Mr Graham, co-creator of a rather unsuccessful hot air balloon that came to a somewhat dismal end in the Market Square; and Mr Fowler, a political rival to Charles Bradlaugh at the (I believe) 1874 General Election. Mrs C became famous local MP Margaret Bondfield, elected in 1923 and the first ever woman Cabinet member. Naturally I was very proud of her; she was very modest at her success. I think we all took turns to be someone famous from the town at some point. As a result, you strike up conversations with your fellow walkers, so that, unlike a traditional theatrical play experience, where you sit down quietly, absorbing what happens on stage and not breathing a word until the interval, here you’re encouraged to respond and participate, exchange views with strangers and make joint discoveries as you wander around.

Playing with time is another method by which this entertainment took on a life of its own. We would stand at one location and within a few minutes would be transported maybe as far back as the fourteenth century, or to the Elizabethan or Victorian era, then right back to today and perhaps into the future too, as we considered the future for our imaginary eight year old girl companion, Sarah, as she made her way through the town, and her life, and considered her position in respect to the past; a very thoughtful, personal and yet tangential way of looking at our environment.

Daniel in full swingDaniel’s narrative style is very expressive and entertaining. He’s a bit like that very rare beast – a history teacher to whom you can relate. When he tells a story that involves personal tragedy, you feel that tragedy yourself; as when we tried to get under the skin of the man who, with his wife and son were plunged into water to prove whether or not they were witches – if they drowned, they were innocent, if they survived they were guilty. It was straight out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, except that Daniel didn’t make it funny. He made it horrific; a very eerie and creepy tale that ice-cubed its way up my spine. This man survived the drowning, as he supposed, by praying hard to be saved and to be given a purpose in life by God. His family also survived the drowning, but they just confessed to a feeling of fear and horror when they were submerged; and therefore he concluded that his wife and son were indeed guilty of witchcraft because they didn’t pray. Earlier, outside the courtroom, we had heard another personal story, the tale of Elizabeth Pinckard, found guilty of the murder of her mother-in-law, despite the valiant efforts of one Dr Mash to prevent her being hanged by his somewhat incredible suggestions that the mother-in-law died by her own hand. It was presented in quite a light-hearted way, yet you were left to ponder the motivation of the good doctor for his whimsical notions.

In many of these scenarios, Daniel would take you to the edge of the story ending and then leave you dangling to draw your own conclusions. Then before you realise it, with his words hanging in the air, he’s moved on to the next location and you’re left trying to catch up with his waving hat before you lose sight of him. This really kept the whole thing moving and dynamic. It felt like an outdoors promenade theatrical performance – always a good thing in my book. And when it ends, and you eventually return to the theatre, and everyone says their goodbyes and disperses back out in different directions into the streets from which you’ve just arrived, it’s like a tidal wave of local awareness has come to a head at the theatre doors and then just slowly dissipates back into the environment.

An extremely enjoyable experience, and it’s great that the R&D continue to support smaller, more informal activities such as this as part of its remit. An excellent way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and if a Story Hunt comes your way, don’t hesitate to get on board!