Birthday Day, Wassail at The Speedwell, Crewkerne and touring

WASSAIL, known as Somerset’s resident theatre company, is back with a bang (or at least a strawberry pavlova) in a new show called Birthday Day, currently touring until the beginning of September.

Based on a short story by company founder Nick White, it does what Wassail does best – get into the heart of the community to tell a tale that is a fiction about a situation that, in fact, happens all the time. On a strawberry farm in deepest Somerset, the family has lived, growing succulent fruit, raising cattle and passing the land down through the generations. Melissa’s two daughters, Jean and Lily, are born on the same day, four years apart, and so their annual celebrations become Birthday Day, and all the family, friends and villagers are invited to tea.

Of course there are the usual sibling squabbles and contests, but the family is close, so when Jean announces she is leaving to live in Yeovil, it’s shocking and disruptive. Times are changing, and the impact of the changes is felt in subsequent Birthday Days over the years. The family is conventional and although the technology of tractors might change, the social constraints and expectations remain rigidly conservative.

These three strong women, with their babies (played to perfection by a folded towel), evocatively take their tea-party guests through the decades with the help of beautifully sung, played and arranged pop music of the time. The actresses are Somerset-born or based and each creates a memorable character full of joy, hope, fear, love, disappointment, frustration and driving family loyalty.

The audience is involved as various relatives and villagers, and there is always the pavlova – the traditional centrepiece for Birthday Day.

Nick White has directed with a keen eye for detail and the perfect pace and tone, never veering towards the yokelese sometimes imaginatively imposed by outsiders! Eleanor Westbrook not only plays Melissa but an accordion and banjo, composed the music-scape and directed the excellent singing. Rachel Cohen is the sparky Jean, torn between her deep love of the farm and the family and her urge to get away and see the world. Helena Payne is homebody Lily, expected – as the youngest daughter – to do just what she’s told by parents, relatives and her beloved older sister.

Birthday Day is the perfect summer entertainment, performed in the round in a tent to keep off the hottest of the sun and the wettest of the rain, bedecked with birthday-card-bunting, wild flowers and strawberries. This really is Wassail at its best, story-telling from the heart.


Photographs by Len Copland


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