Thursday 17 November 2016


Last month, I wrote about seeing Kneehigh Theatre’s production of "946: The Amazing Adventure of Adolphus Tips" at the Globe theatre, down on London's Southbank.

On that occasion I was sharing the experience with a couple of pre-teens.

This month, I saw the show again, with a wonderful "grown-up"  writing friend at a very different venue. the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

 When this building - also known as the "WYP" - opened in March 1990, under its Artistic Director Jude Kelly, it was Britain’s largest new purpose-built theatre for 15 years. It was built on Leed's Quarry Hill, the site of the most notorious slums in 19th Century Western Europe, and later, of their replacement, the infamous Quarry Hill flats, which were also torn down. The WYP considers itself to be “a vital theatre, a great artistic beacon for the North, rooted in our communities and creating exceptional art,” and I am a great admirer of the place.

The WYP's largest stage, named the Quarry, offers a modern, wide-open acting space which is almost the opposite of the Globe's pillared Elizabethan apron stage. Immediately, the small Kneehigh cast had more room to move and “play”. There was no conflict between the setting and the use of acoustic music, sound effects, lighting or Kneehigh's trademark glitter ball. There was no problem over the “non-Shakespearean” nature of the 946 play, an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children's novel about the Slapton Sands disaster, which I've written about more expansively here. In  the Quarry, the dancers had room to dance, the musicians on the balcony were easily visible, and the shallow raked seating allowed easy movement from the stage into the audience. I really appreciated seeing the show working in this new “expanded” acting space.

Yet afterwards, musing on all that I’d seen, I felt that - compared with the seemingly smaller Globe - some of the scenes lost their intensity. In the Quarry, the tiniest puppet figures, so cleverly used in the production to change perspective and time, looked a little too tiny to have an impact on the back-rows, whether they were flock of sheep and sheep-dog, or the miniature German parachutist.

Additionally, when the cast hold up photographic portraits of the “German pilot’s family” and also those representing all the nationalities involved in “England’s War”, was the important and intentional variety of faces visible? The 750 seater Quarry is a space may be more suited to large scale projection than to hand held A4 sheets and display books. 

As the larger stage gave room and time to separate out the scenes, it sometimes created a slightly different mood. At the Quarry, when Lily, the young heroine, daydreams about Hitler and Churchill ending the war by means of children’s games, there were just the three actors spread across the front of the set. Yet, on the Globe’s crowded stage, the moment was and had to be set within the cheering, crowded schoolroom. There the scene came across as young Lily storytelling to amuse her young friends, all sharing in the same fantasy, wishes and war worries. Both the Kneehigh performances were good but it was interesting to see the way the two theatre spaces shaded their own versions.

I felt the audience at the Quarry seemed warmer and keener than the crowds at the Globe, who must surely have included people seeing the show as part of their London tourist’s “history” experience, despite the programme’s lack of the Bard. The Leeds audience seemed to be welcoming the show for its own sake, and there was the room for a well-deserved standing ovation without any concerns over the tightness of the seating or the creakiness of a wooden theatre frame. There was also time to notice the elderly woman in the row in front of me, sobbing for her own childhood memories. All I can say is that both sizes of theatre experience had their own strengths and delights.

Even though I’m half-repeating my last post, I’m putting these thoughts up as my History Girls post here today, because November – especially this particular November – seems to be all about “acts” in bigger or smaller settings: huge triumphs and desperate disappointments, and with emotions stirred by other kinds of actor.

Despite the “inclusive” messages within Michael Morpurgo’s books and shows, and similar books by other authors, I feel concerned that this concentration of war anniversaries and the remembrance of the dead has not opened hearts and minds as they might have done.

I worry that these “bigger” celebrations may have led to an uncomfortable, boastful kind of nationalism, have fed a public mood that runs from newsreaders being trolled for not wearing a poppy promptly enough through to knowingly-edited photographs of party leaders at the Cenotaph being used by the press for political ends. Although the lessons being learned from these bigger celebrations of past conflicts has informed some, and honoured the many sacrifices, I wonder whether they have also led to an uncomfortable  and illusory sense of “national greatness”.

I may be wrong in my pessimism but, this November, it fills me with sadness to know that I cannot see a St George’s flag nor Union Jack displayed without a certain kind of discomfort, despite all the sacrifices that my family has made in the past. In what is said to be a post-factual age, history is looming very large indeed. White poppies, rather than white feathers, perhaps.

Penny Dolan.
A Boy Called M.O.U.SE


Sue Purkiss said...

What can you say? It's all extremely worrying...

Sally Zigmond said...

I worry, too, that the Union Flag as well as the English one have been hijacked by causes I loathe. It upsets me that if I were to wave the English Flag I would be classed as a racist, so I don't. I also find small moments or remembrance more moving than state occasions. I find the annual Cenotaph parade, with its regimental marching, tends towards a celebration of war whereas our tiny village event in the churchyard is far more significant especially when I read the names which are still in evidence in the neighbours. Surely we can be proud of our country and our neighbourhoods without mass triumphalism or hatred?

Penny Dolan said...

Sally, thank you for your thoughts on Remembrance celebrations. I have exactly those feelings about flying "our" flags too.

Yes, Sue. Worry mixed with a kind of grief. I wonder if future history books will record 2016 as so sad a year?

Katherine Langrish said...

Thankyou, Sue. I think white poppies are a good idea. However, one can't help but notice than *any* kind of symbol, in the end, an of their very nature, are prone to be reinterpreted.