The siren call of the sea

JACK Rattenbury was a famous smuggler along the Jurassic coast of Dorset and Devon. He went to sea at the age of nine, and a few years before he died at the age of 65 recounted his life in Memoirs of a Smuggler, written with the help of a Unitarian minister – perhaps he repented of his sins. He was known as “the Rob Roy of the West” so there were probably many who saw him as a Robin Hood figure – seafaring communities often benefitted from the activities of the “gentlemen” who dealt in contraband.

Villain or hero, Jack is just one of the characters in the new Lyme Regis community play, Lyme And The Sea, which will be staged outside the Marine Theatre from 15th to 18th June – and his story will be told by his descendant, Andy Rattenbury, who has written the three previous Lyme community plays.

It was “quite a struggle to find a theme that worked well enough to span a whole evening, and was specific to Lyme,” says Andy.

The eventual chosen theme for the play, which was delayed by the pandemic and lockdowns, is a celebration of the thousand-plus year relationship of Lyme Regis and the sea. It tells stories of trading and fishing, of the notorious and notable people who lived in or passed through the town, the writers, the scientists, the fossil-hunters and the beach-combers, and of the way the sea dominates everything.

The characters range from the Duke of Monmouth, landing in Lyme to launch his doomed campaign against King James II, and the mother of paleontology, Mary Anning, to Dr Richard Russell, who in 1750 published A Dissertation on the Use of Seawater in the Diseases of the Glands, Particularly, the Scurvy, Jaundice, King’s Evil, Leprosy and the Glandular Consumption. This is credited with encouraging the 18th century interest in seawater bathing.

The stories, linked with narration by various real people, including the late John Fowles, are told with sea shanties, folk songs and new music, sung by members of the 60-strong company, accompanied by a live band, under the musical direction of Declan Duffy.

“I want it to feel like a ceilidh,” says Andy, whose previous successful community plays were  Tempest of Lyme, Monmouth: A West Country Rebellion and Are you Going to the Marine?, to mark the theatre’s 125th anniversary.

The Rattenbury roots are deep in Lyme – two of Andy’s brothers will be in the play, along with two of his nieces and a sister-in-law. With great-great-great-great….grandfather Jack on stage, it will be something of a family affair!

While two of his brothers still live in Lyme, Andy lives in London, where his “day job” has for years been script-writing for some of British television’s most popular dramas and soaps, including Holby City, Teachers, Peak Practice, Monarch of the Glen, Torchwood, The Golden Hour (which he created), Hollyoaks, Casualty, Eastenders and Doc Martin, an episode for the new and final series.

Andy trained as an actor at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. As an actor he worked for both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. He made his first successful venture into writing, winning the Bristol Old Vic/HTV prize.

His play Soundings, which was set in Lyme, won a new play-writing award at the Old Red Lion in Islington. Other early theatre projects were adaptations of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Hardy’s The Return of the Native.

A friend got him into writing for television, where he started on The Bill. Writing for the soaps has to be very fast, he says: “You learn to deliver at pace.”

Lyme Regis has a long history with community plays, dating back to 1978 when Ann Jellicoe wrote and directed the first play, produced by the then Colway Theatre Trust (now Claque Theatre), The Reckoning.

Ann Jellicoe, who lived in Dorset for many years, and whose best known play is The Knack, came to see Andy’s play about Monmouth before she died, in 2017, at the age of 90..

Although he lives away from the town, Andy loves Lyme Regis, returns frequently and has been a patron of the Marine Theatre for 15 years. “I love writing community plays,” he says. “I love being involved.”

Pictured: The community play will be performed outside the Marine Theatre, overlooking the harbour and bay; Andy Rattenbury with the sea and cliffs towards West Bay behind him. and a drawing of the infamous smuggler.