From Washington to Wickenby

The moment I leave the inevitable Friday afternoon crawl in 1st gear up most of the M1, and head east on the A46, I feel myself breathe more easily.  The roads are still busy but at least I can get up into 2nd and even, at times, 3rd gear.  But then, as I reach the A158 beyond Lincoln I start to feel positively light-hearted.  When I turn off this road, however, onto the B1399 and find myself in country lanes winding through verdant fields bathed in glorious early evening sunshine, a wave of calm seems to flood my whole being.   Putting the R back into theatre

(Putting the R back into theatre)

Flat farmland, green acres, stacked-up haybales glowing in the western light – it feels like I’ve arrived at an oasis.  And when I remind myself that it was in these very fields, along these actual lanes, on this fertile farmland, that a group of conscientious objectors lived and worked together during the second World War, on what were in effect ‘pacifist farming communities’, then the calm I am feeling doesn’t seem so fanciful – one can almost sense it in the air.

The venue for my performance of ‘THIS EVIL THING’ on Saturday September 1st is the Broadbent Theatre in Wickenby – a place a little less built-up than Washington D.C. in the USA, where I last performed the play over four months ago.  Well, basically, Wickenby  seems to consist of a single road – just about wide enough for a large tractor to get through.  World-renowned actor Jim Broadbent’s father Roy helped convert, around 1970, what was a small Methodist chapel into a 100-seat theatre for the Lindsey Rural Players, a group of passionate amateur theatricals, some of whom had acted together since their evenings together after long days spent farming in the fields during WW2.

Roy Broadbent and Dick Cornwallis, both C.O.s themselves, set up a scheme during WW2 to train C.O.s in agriculture, leasing a local farm from John Brocklesby (cousin of Bert, whose story I tell in my play) – to which many C.O.s given conditional exemption flocked, usually on their bicycles, and thus the ‘pacifist farm communities’ were formed.  It was seen not just as a training farm, but as a practical opportunity ‘to change the driving force of life from self-interest to the communal interest, from competition to co-operation.’  For neighbours they had a German Prisoner of War camp, and RAF Wickenby airbase.

It’s so special to be here performing my play about those earlier C.O.s in WW1 who ‘paved the way’ for the rights of conscience – and the reason I’m here is all thanks to my host Ian Sharp, who has researched and written his own excellent play ‘REMEMBRANCE’ about the C.O. communities here in Lincolnshire.  (It was recently taken to the Edinburgh Festival in a shortened form called CONCHIES playing to packed houses.  Look out for it on the ‘Conchies’ Facebook page.)

Ian saw my play twice last year, the second time being at Hull where he brought a group of people connected to the Broadbent Theatre – including 98-year-old Quaker Don Sutherland who was one of the C.O.s working on the farm in WW2.  I remember Don speaking vividly in Hull at the Q and A afterwards.

‘Is there any chance Don might come tonight?’ I ask Ian.  ‘Oh yes, he’s planning to – but we can’t get hold of him at the moment – he’s on his allotment doing some gardening.’

That night the theatre is packed, and ice creams are being sold before the play starts along with cold drinks down at the front of the stage.  Lots of volunteers are on hand cheerfully tearing tickets, handing out programmes and offering me an ice-cream – ‘I’d love to have one,’ I say, ‘But I’m just about to leap round the stage for 75 minutes.’

The building is very warm and the ice creams are selling like hot cakes, so to speak, and I prepare myself for a sweaty night.

Most of the audience seem to know each other and are from the villages roundabout – and having seen Ian’s play here about the WW2 C.O.s, are obviously keen to learn the stories of their forerunners in WW1.  Two people have travelled for an hour and a half from Leeds though to be here – so I’d better be good.  And in the front row, fresh from his allotment, is Don Sutherland, who is now 99 and therefore must be the oldest person to have ever seen my play – once, let alone twice.

Jim Broadbent isn’t here tonight, though – ever-busy, he is rehearsing in London I believe, but he does keep a keen interest in the theatre named after his dad.  He’ll probably be a bit miffed to see that the ‘R’ in ‘Theatre’ has dropped off outside, next time he pays a visit.

I’ve been busy revising the play in my living room in London, including the crates, all 9 of them again, the full version – unlike the scaled-down version with just 6 crates when I last performed it in the U.S. – round the corner from the Obamas’ residence in uptown Washington D.C.  And not having another performance for a number of weeks after this, I am glad of an opportunity to ‘air’ the play again.

Air?  Not much of that around tonight.  I lose who knows how many pounds in perspiration – but what is heartening is that (maybe thanks to their intake of ice-cream) the audience is hugely attentive throughout – and very appreciative too of Bertrand Russell’s wry witticisms.

Bill Bartlett, who knows the lights and sound system of this theatre intimately, runs the technical aspects brilliantly for me.  His other (proper) job is as an intensive care nurse.  His patients are definitely in safe hands if his operating of my cues is anything to go by.

Doing both lighting and sound is a lot for one person to take on though at short notice – and just to prove he’s human, Bill keeps Bertrand Russell in the dark for just a bit too long when the light should have changed to a ‘bright summer’s day’.  But it does mean I get to extemporise an extra line for Russell:

‘A little more light please, Bill?’

(‘Is that in the script?’  I hear someone say.)

Ian and his partner Liz host a small gathering afterwards back at their lovely converted barn a few miles away, and I partake of my first wine for a month or so – I sort of ‘go into training’ in the run-up before a performance of this rather challenging piece.  And I now get the chance for a good chat with Don Sutherland, who having been on his allotment that day, then having sat through the play that evening, as well as chipping in vigorously again at the Q and A afterwards, is now ensconced on a sofa till midnight chatting to me about his life as a C.O. and Quaker.  A deeply inspiring man – and so modest with it.

Next morning as I drive away, it’s the first few miles of my journey that are idyllic as I retrace my steps through this lovely farmland – and then, as I reach the A1, what should greet me but a long traffic jam.  But am I bovvered?  Can’t say I am.  I’m still full of Lincolnshire’s very own special brand of peace.

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