Parson Terry’s Dinner and other stories

This first production was a response by John Somers to a request to stage a play in Payhembury, East Devon, to mark the turn of the millennium. As part of the Millennium celebrations, the Parish had published a book commemorating aspects of the Parish’s history (Stanes, 2000). John examined this and chose seven stories that had dramatic potential. He selected seven sites for the performance of the stories. The audience gathered in the village centre just before the start of the play and was divided into seven equal groups. Each group was led by its own storyteller to visit the seven scenes in an order different from the other six groups. This ensured that only one group was present at each scene at any one time. On the journey between scenes the storytellers related additional stories about the village.

Each scene lasted around ten minutes and the finale twenty. As all audience groups witnessed all scenes, the actors performed each scene seven times a night – twenty-one times in the run. Audience groups were limited to nineteen to allow each to enter the smallest space, the house kitchen. The play was performed for three nights to a total of three hundred and eighty nine people.

The scenes comprised:

  1. The dragging from the pulpit, as he made his 1650, Christmas Day sermon, of Parson Robert Terry, Rector of the Parish of Payhembury. Cromwellian soldiers who were in the Church (England was then a republic under the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell following the execution of Charles 1st) objected to the Parson’s support for the Royalist cause. They dragged him to his parsonage where they ate his family’s Christmas dinner in front of them and promised to return at a later date to turn him out of the parish. Performed in the Church and in the parsonage of 1650, now a private house.
  2. An inspection in 1920 of the school children by a visiting inspector who tests the children on their skills in basic subjects. During the inspection a boy fools around wearing a wolf mask, and is beaten by the headteacher. Performed in the School which was built in 1851.
  3. The reception in 1941 in a village house of three child evacuees from London who were sent to the countryside to avoid Second World War German bombing. The scene examines the upset caused in the host family by the evacuee’s arrival. Performed in the large kitchen of an ancient village house.
  4. An old man runs to the street with scalded hands after children drop bricks down his chimney into his cooking pot. This leads a drunken argument between this and another older man, in which the latter chops off his thumb. Performed outdoors in front of an old village house.
  5. A scene set in a cider mill in which the male hierarchy of the community in 1860 is established, prior to the entry of the young wife of one of the workers. She pleads with her husband to leave the cider making to fetch a doctor for their sick child. He is torn between loyalty to an authoritarian employer and his family responsibilities. Performed in a cider mill dating from the 17th century.
  6. The arrival of the first car in the village in 1920. There is intense rivalry between the car owner, a prominent local butcher and cattle dealer, and the owner of a horse and wagon who claims to have been cheated by the dealer in the past. Performed in front of a garage which, until 1920 was a carriage-making business.
  7. The unveiling of the Parish War Memorial in 1921 to commemorate the dead of the First World War, 1914-1918. A family from the Second World War period (1939-1945) arrives at the memorial in a kind of time travel. They learn by War Office telegram of the death of the man of the family in France. Ghosts of the two wars – soldiers and nurses, visit the memorial to ensure they are remembered.
  8. The finale. This comprised a specially written song sung by a 14 year-old girl who symbolically, through the gift of a parchment declaration, gives the future of the Parish to the youngest children of the community. She also gives to them the stories we have performed and urges them to live many more in the future. Performed on a raised stage on the village green with a painted panorama of the village as a backdrop. The audience and cast, around 250 people each night, joined in the chorus of the song. Some pyrotechnics and dancing followed. The dance involved the cast and audience linking hands around the village green.