Feb. 20th 2018
Friday 16th February – three performances completed of my mini-tour of North Yorkshire, and three still to come.
It’s a sunny Friday morning and tonight, myself, Nobby and Colin will be in Newton-le-Willows – but first, I have time for a morning stroll out of Richmond. Nobby recommends the two-mile walk to Easby Abbey to see the beautiful ruins in a lovely setting.
‘And don’t fail to pop into St. Agatha’s, the small church next to the Abbey,’ Nobby urges me. ‘It doesn’t look much but you won’t regret it,’ he adds enigmatically.
I’m intrigued and set off along the rushing River Swale, cheered by the February sunshine, and then, when I arrive at the Abbey, am swept away at the sight of thousands of snowdrops, carpeting every inch of the church yard, and packed around the ancient gravestones…(where’s Wordsworth when you need him? I think to myself.)
The old ruins of the Abbey glisten in the sunlight but I head for the door of St. Agatha’s which is heavy and medieval and requires a hefty shove to get it open. And then I’m inside. Hmm. Yes. A quiet, peaceful interior, but nothing out of the ordinary…until…oh my goodness!
Now I understand what Nobby was hinting at. At the altar end of the church, high up on the walls, are wonderfully vivid medieval paintings, depicting figures in medieval costume, going about their medieval agricultural tasks as well as participating in scenes from the Bible – Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden and then on the other side of the church the birth of Christ and medieval shepherds in the field being awestruck by the angel’s news. Gorgeous colours, and about 700 years-old.
I set off back to Richmond, and treat Nobby to a fish lunch in Barretts, and quietly rave about the wall paintings. The lunch is delicious and substantial. At each venue North Country plays, a snack is provided before the show – (due to there rarely being any shops nearby) – quiche and salad or a sandwich perhaps. Which is most welcome and one less thing to think about. But it means I make sure I have a big filling meal earlier in the day. Like today’s fish lunch. (‘Is he going on about his stomach AGAIN?’ I hear you cry. ‘Actors!’)
Anyway, we get to Newton-le-Willows and set up with the help of Mark, who has worked for NCT a lot and lives nearby, and a number of oh so friendly volunteers, Jane, Bob, David and others – and soon it’s time for our snack.
Snack? Jane at the venue has only gone and made chicken in a white wine sauce with leeks and baked potatoes and a panorama of green vegetables.
Oh no, I think! I can’t eat this AND digest it all in time for the show.
Or can I? I mean, I don’t want to seem ungrateful.
So I have a little.
Wow. It’s scrummy.
So I have a little more. And more. I finish everything on my plate then follow that with a piece of roulade for pudding.
I look at the clock – 90 minutes to digest it. Should be enough time. Just.
(Fact is, I’m never a doubting Hamlet when it comes to food.)
Newton-le-Willows has lost its pub, lost its shop, but still has this village hall, which with its comfy bar is the focal point socially for the village. Last night my dressing room was the Mayor’s Parlour at Richmond Town Hall, tonight it’s a corner of the village kitchen – with Jane washing up plates and dishes and chatting cheerfully while I discreetly change into my costume.
Come 7.30 the hall is packed, maybe 70 people again, and they are SO responsive to the play – this is one of my all-time favourite performances, I believe – of this play to this audience in this hall (after that supper).
They thank me and North Country Theatre profusely for ‘bringing this to us.’ It’s heart-warming and humbling to hear such comments.
The next night, Saturday, sees us in Masham Town Hall – again on the first floor, as in Richmond, but no Mayor’s Parlour for me this time – just a chilly changing room behind the stage.
Chilly, because the town hall heating system broke down earlier in the week and the necessary spare part still hasn’t arrived yet. The potential audience have been warned though – ‘Do come and see this excellent piece of theatre – but there’s no heating and you will freeze your socks off.’
Hmm, not sure that will be a sufficient enticement to rouse people from their firesides.
Today and tomorrow we have Tony, from the Theatre Royal at Richmond, who is tremendous fun and is on hand to help with setting up and lights and generally getting everything shipshape. I take them all out to lunch by way of a thank-you gesture, to Johnny Baghdad’s fab café in the corner of the town square then it’s back up to the chilly hall to continue the set-up.
Fan heaters and the like are dotted round the place to try and pump something resembling lukewarm air into the atmosphere but these will have to be turned off during the performance.
At 5.30pm Nick at the Town Hall provides us with our snack – and it’s another large meal – cottage pie! Delicious – and I tuck in without hesitation – I need the fuel.
And then, at around 7pm, 60 brave folk turn up – and I find myself performing to an audience swaddled in overcoats, gloves, hoods and large woolly bobble-hats, their arms resolutely crossed, hugging themselves for warmth. But in spite of this, the play still seems to go down well.
One audience member says in the Q and A that he has interviewed a number of the COs who were sent to France (when they were much older men), as detailed in my play. I am astonished. He also says my play is a gripping and accurate account of what happened to them. Who is this man? He reveals that he is Peter Liddle – the man who I am well aware, if not everyone else is, has an important collection (the Liddle Collection, no less) at Leeds University – of papers, diaries, memoirs and interviews with the COs. To have his blessing on my project – well, this is the icing on the cake of another memorable day in North Yorks. (Icing seems an appropriate word in the circumstances.)
And so to the final day, and the first time I can ever recall giving a performance on a Sunday evening. We are at Northallerton’s Forum Theatre, which indeed is a proper theatre, and which seems therefore just a little bit less special than the village halls and town hall spaces I’ve grown to love this week. But the staff and volunteers there are very friendly as ever, and we get our first century! 101 people pitch up and they are a great audience to go out on. The theatre is warm, thank goodness, and they laugh a lot at the humorous moments and are hushed in silence at the tense moments.
Word of mouth about the play seems to have spread across North Yorks throughout the week – and again a special moment occurs. Bert in my play meets another CO, Norman Gaudie, while imprisoned in Richmond Castle – and they become firm friends. An 87 year-old gent comes up to me after the play tonight and says his brother-in-law saw the play in the chilly town hall last night, then phoned him up that Sunday morning and said, ‘Dick – you HAVE to go and see this play tonight if you’re not doing anything.’ So Dick Stainsby, for that is the gent’s name, made the journey, no small distance, from Great Ayton to do so. He told me didn’t regret it in the slightest. He also told me, ‘And you know what – I was a good friend of Norman Gaudie’s son, Martin.’
It was that kind of week, my week in North Yorks. Full of unrepeatable moments and special surprises. I’ve played huge theatres in my time, the Olivier, the Barbican, Bradford Alhambra even, and enjoyed them all. But have I enjoyed any of them as much as I’ve enjoyed playing these far more intimate spaces where, as Nobby says, ‘You can see the whites of their eyes’ – and where afterwards you have lively and absorbing chats with so many of them about the play and its subject matter? You rarely get to meet any audience when playing big theatres – but this week I feel I’ve made hundreds of new friends. I can’t thank Nobby and Colin, aka North Country Theatre, enough for taking a chance on my play and for all the hard work they put into making it happen – one of the most memorable weeks I’ve had in my rather long working life.
Of course, if we’d scheduled it for a couple of weeks later, when the the Beast from the East made its ferocious entrance up north and elsewhere – well, our mini-tour almost certainly wouldn’t have happened. How lucky were we?