The Living at Hurford

On this page:

Exeter Flying Post.

Bill Greenwell

A rat ran across the rafters, and the audience laughed appreciatively. This isn't an everyday event, but then, on the day before the Countryside Alliance march, I was watching something very unusual and very well conceived, in a crowded barn at Langmead Farm, somewhere near North Tawton (if I had one criticism, it's that their directions were confusing).

The show I was watching was a community play called - unpromisingly, perhaps - The Living at Hurford, and was devised, written and directed by John Somers. It was the most intelligent piece of comment on the countryside crisis, and I don't mean hunting, that I have come across. This was all the more the case because the audience, who were involved in actually interrogating the play, patently knew what was being talked about. I found myself parked next to a farmer from Whiddon Down. He complained that the London event had been hijacked by the hunt lobby, but he said that, had his legs been stronger (this wasn't a joke), he would have been on his way up there. At one point, the audience was drawn into a discussion about how much one of the principal characters, a suicidally depressed farmer, might get if he stuck to a driving job. Someone guessed £14,000. "£12,000 at best," said my neighbour. We were into that kind of detail.

You arrived at The Living at Hurford with plenty to go on: a set of farm accounts, neatly typed, a school report for the daughter of the family, a nicely scrappy family tree, photos of the farm, a card/letter from the son to the father, a newspaper obituary page, an inked-in map of the area, and a solicitor's letter. Someone had spent a lot of love and care on this pack, and it added immeasurably to the experience. So did the performance of Hilary Francis as Jan, the woman at the heart of the farm, her father just dead, her husband going over the edge, her children at college – their escape-route, as she saw it - and her brother, who had turned his back on the farm, been made redundant in Stoke, and was now cack-handedly trying to buy his way back into the farm with some inheritance and his pay-off. A little detail about the price of carrots - cheaper to fly them in from the Philippines than grow them in Devon - told you almost all you needed to know about the predicament the farm faced. After 45 minutes, in which the characters argued the toss guardedly amongst one another, the audience was invited to ask whoever they wanted whatever they wanted. This was where the production really hit home, because all the performers were at their best, determinedly in role when they answered the questions (or refused to). What was so good about the writing was that it had carefully concealed so much information - we didn't know that Jan's husband was really committed to farming beforehand, for instance. For the most part, it was brutally committed to telling home truths, and the whole show was lovingly put together with live music, and the involvement of children which managed not to be overly cloying. I don't know how ad hoc Exstream Theatre Company is, but they want to tour the piece, and it deserves to be toured right round the country. The audience got to choose the (improvised) last scene. There wasn't a right answer to be found. Just an empty bellyful of questions.

Comments

‘I think you hit the nail on the head. You got it absolutely right. [….] The play showed an exceptional understanding of the very difficult situation farming families are finding themselves in. [….] This is how it is. I know!’
(Farmer audience member)

‘I don’t know what you know about farming boy, but how you wrote it is how it is,’ (Farmer audience member)

‘That’s my life you put up there tonight.’
(Farmer audience member)

‘Watching your play at Langmead Farm last Thursday was like watching our own lifestyle [….] We all go out to work to keep the farm going (120 acre mixed).’
(Farmer audience member)

‘The regular grinding need to 'see the stock' and 'take silage up to the top field' etc was very realistic and the taking of food out to the [workers in the] fields at busy times was also true […].'
(Farmer audience member)

‘I should like to pay tribute to you and all who took part in such a professional production.’ (Audience member)

'Real live drama, with real meaning and fantastic commitment obvious from all concerned.' (Audience member)

'It was a special experience.'
(Audience member)

‘I think that the reaction of the audience was one of the surprises for me - the way the play had made people want to speak up, and to give their personal viewpoint - showing that the content had really touched them. Also the way we were able to talk to the characters as though they were real people.’
(Audience member)

'The intimacy of the evening on a working farm worked a treat.'
(Audience member)

‘This was a strongly moving, thought-provoking and inspired event, all the more remarkable because it was skilfully cooked up from relatively simple ingredients [….] So in some ways this was fairly straightforward drama and theatre in education stuff, performance by and for the rural oppressed, with a well-thought -through touch of [Gavin] Bolton and [Augusto] Boal. But what lifted the drama towards the interrogative sublime, and gave it an exceptional charge, was a congruence in its subject, its setting, and its audience.’
(Audience member)

‘It proved to be an extraordinary evening [….] The story was told with passion and charm, sometimes flashing back to the better, brighter days of a harvest long ago. This was a well-written and well-acted piece, gripping and crafted, but always telling only enough of the story to carry itself forward. There was nothing gratuitous or overly dramatic here. Economy, reason and character were all. I could feel a palpable sense of understanding and empathy from the audience. They knew exactly what the play was about - it was telling their story.’
(Audience member)

‘It was the most intelligent piece of comment on the countryside crisis [….] that I have come across. This was all the more the case because the audience who were involved in actually interrogating the play, patently knew what was being talked about.’
(Audience member)