Armistice Day, and I find myself in a large room in the building of Theatre Clwyd, north Wales, waiting to perform a trimmed down 60-minute version of my WW1 COs play THIS EVIL THING, as part of the theatre’s series of lunchtime ‘Picnic Plays’ – organised by William James, associate producer there, who has been good enough to read earlier incarnations of my play, and who describes himself as an ’atheist pacifist.’
There is a regular avid core of thirty or forty folk who turn up to these readings, where they can buy a picnic bag on top of their ticket, or just bring their own lunch if they wish. So it seems I’m going to be performing some quite serious material while people munch on their sarnies.In fact, most of them arrive at noon, a good half hour before I am due to start, in order to get most of their eating and drinking done before the performance. Three people troop in with a full wicker hamper and proceed to pop the cork of a bottle of bubbly. Hang on, I think, you haven’t seen me act yet. Rather than rows of seats, there are about eight tables with lovely white tablecloths, and chairs dotted around them. It’s all very informal, an almost festive atmosphere.
I needn’t have worried about the munching. Once I start, after a light-hearted jokey introduction, they are very quiet and very attentive, and at the end, very responsive, wanting to talk about the themes and issues raised. And I feel this trimmed-down version, or ‘pocket’ version as I christen it, works on its own terms, without the nine wooden crates, and without all of Mark Noble’s wonderful sound effects. In other words I feel I can offer this version to non-theatre venues and spaces, or schools perhaps, where something more technically simple is preferred, but which still seems to pack the same emotional and intellectual punch.
Certainly judging by the feedback written by the audience on slips of paper left on their picnic tables. Really positive comments, along the lines of ‘stimulating’, ‘provocative’, ‘moving’.
One slip of paper said that, then went on to say, ‘A suggestion, though…’ Oh yes, I thought, and what might that be? ‘Could we have wholemeal bread next time please?’
The final slip of paper I read said glowing things about the piece then finished with a p.s.: ‘But the picnic was dismal.’
I write plays, learn them, perform them – but I don’t do picnics. (Not yet.) I discreetly passed the comments on to catering.