Sell out drama with a difference...

Cornish Archer being tended by a house servant

Imagine watching a wounded Cornish Archer from the 1549 Battle of Fenny Bridges as he digs a musket ball from his thigh or witnessing Master Peter, priest of Payhembury in 1349 as, on his deathbed during the Black Death he hands his vestments to his successor, Master Mark, who himself succumbs to the disease weeks later. These were just two of the scenes contained in Tale Valley Community Theatre’s site specific theatre production staged at Leyhill, an ancient property in Payhembury Parish during four sell-out performances in April 2012.

Master Mark at the deathbed of Master Peter

Research and writing
Research into Leyhill’s history had started two years before by Shirley Nelson, John Russell and Nick Pruce. Archive searches in the Devon and Somerset Records Offices proved particularly fruitful and documents spanning the period back to the 15th Century were consulted and seven scenes were written using this and other material as inspiration. The writers were Nick Pruce, John Russell, Shirley Nelson, Rose Watts, Keith Vaughan, Tim Woolgar and John Somers. The scenes, spanning the period from 1349 to April 2012 took place in different rooms of the house, in outbuildings and in the Leyhill cobbled yard.

Waiting: women make bandages

Audience groups watched wives from 1916 as they bolstered their resolve through knitting items and making bandages for their men at the front, enacted in the huge Leyhill kitchen.

The Muster

A motley group of men and boys mustered in the cobbled yard in 1588 to resist the expected Spanish invasion, and a pair of minor local poets of 1800 in the magnificent Leyhill drawing room, duped into thinking that Samuel Taylor Coleridge would be taking the Leyhill tenancy from the owner, Francis Drewe of Broadhembury.

A scene enacted in Leyhill’s old kitchen most closely followed research evidence, employing the text of actual letters written in 1608 by the son of Margaret and John Willoughby whilst he was studying at Oxford University.

The Willoughbys
Laudanum: waiting for Coleridge

A scene set on the day of performance was enacted in the Leyhill workshops in which in reality, furniture and fittings are made for international clients. Thus the Leyhill story was brought up to date. Audience groups sixteen strong were led around the scenes by guides who added additional historical information which provided a deeper context for the stories.

Intimate audience in the workshop scene

Programme as ticket
Audience members had been prepared for the experience by reading a cleverly designed programme, sold as a ticket, which gave essential information on each scene. This was designed by local artist and gallery owner Tim Woolgar. Sophisticated lighting was installed by Paul Johnson and the live, original music woven into many of the scenes was directed by Charles West. Children, directed by Colette Hudson, provided three scenes with songs and rhymes from childhoods past. The huge logistics of performing theatre in such an unusual venue were overseen by Richard Tift. Costumes were organised by Penny Wilkinson and Gill Tift and props by Ali Owen and Keith Vaughan.

Audience responses were enthusiastic with people joining in the choruses of the finale song which accompanied tableaus of each scene staged in front of the impressive front elevation of the house. Audience numbers were restricted to 112 on each of the four nights and tickets quickly sold out. Comments made by audience members include:

“The 1916 ‘Waiting’ is the scene I cannot get out of my mind. I have no idea who the actors were - but they weren't! To me -and I hope everyone else - they were the real live people just telling their story. And the singing - I have never heard such a wonderful harmony to that song.”

The finale

Another declared that she “was deeply impressed with the enterprise, the writing and the conceiving of the very elaborate and deeply interesting episodes.”

A video of the production shot and edited by Ben Vallack will be available and photos by Andy Cowan can be seen here. Tale Valley Community Theatre has earned a reputation for mounting original, high quality theatre in non-theatre spaces. Artistic Director John Somers is backed by an enthusiastic and skilled committee and contact can be made through the website at tvctheatre.org or by direct contact with John at j.w.somers@ex.ac.uk or 01884 277390.

A review can be seen here.