Dorchester at the end of the 19th century. The world is changing, there is war on the horizon in distant South Africa and the pace of life in Dorset is getting faster – literally, with the arrival of bicycles (not to mention young women in bloomers) and the motor-car.
For three families, the dawn of a new century will mean dramatic changes in their lives.
For the wealthy, successful Pope family, there is a new brewery and houses to build for the workers, but there is growing demand from young women to do more than embroider, paint watercolours and make small-talk.
For the Uffens, the war in South Africa will put the Rev James McLune Uffen, his wife Elizabeth and outspoken daughter Gertrude at odds with both rich and poor in the town, because of their pacifist stand.
For the Hodges, the new industries, the growing town with its shops, factories and new brewery spell the beginning of the long agricultural decline. The war offers adventure but traditional family roles are changing.
Rupert Creed’s rivetting script for Dorchester’s record-breaking sixth community play is full of drama, pathos, humour, patriotism, serious moral questions and wonderful characters.
The stories of the Popes, the Hodges and the Uffens, the troubling questions about the way the British conducted the war against the Boers, the increasing demand for votes and careers for women, all add up to what is probably the strongest story of any of the Dorchester community plays.
The starting point is the poem Drummer Hodge by Thomas Hardy (who appears as a narrator and commentator, played by town crier Alistair Chisholm). The poem takes the imaginary young drummer with the Dorset Regiment, called after the derogatory generic name for country bumpkins, “Hodge.”
Sara Hodge (a moving and powerful performance by Sue Wylie) has just had a new baby James (an Oscar-worthy performance from little Sonny Mitchell), but her feckless husband Ben (excellent John Duff, who manages to convey the hurt and inherent decency of this infuriating and aggressive drunk) not only goes to sign up himself when the call comes for volunteers for the Dorset Yeomanry (led by Lieut Alec Pope – Paul Wallis), but, against his wife’s wishes, takes along his teenage son Will (Joe Parsons) for whose education and future Sara has such hopes.
Sara has the help and support of Gertrude Uffen (Lucie Trollope), the well-educated daughter of the non-conformist minister, and her friend, Hilda Pope (Emma Hill), who is beginning to strain against the restrictive bonds of life as a girl in a wealthy middle class family.
When it comes to the selection of the volunteers, Will is chosen but Alec is rejected, his physical health undermined by his heavy drinking.
The evening opens with a fair, a chance to learn about the beer made at the brewery (with Martin Cree playing his great-grandfather Alfred Pope), to sign the petition for women’s suffrage, listen to local music and sample some local wares.
The action gets under way with a baby competition and celebrations to welcome the return to Dorchester of Sam Vickery VC (Anthony Atkin), the only member of the Dorset Regiment to win the Victoria Cross. It sets the tone of the drama – glory and courage balanced by tragedy and questions.
We see the start of the pacifist movement, with Emily Hobhouse’s shocking reports and photographs from the concentration camps where Boer women and children are dying in their thousands. On a lighter note there is the controversy that surrounds girls on bikes in bloomers – with dire warnings that the “exercise” could damage their child-bearing potential!
Congratulations to everyone in the company and to generous sponsor IJ Brown Opticians whose gift of £10 to each cast member to “invest” resulted in an amazing £5,727 for the community play. Fund-raising ideas that began with this £10 seed capital included a market at the Corn Exchange, a dance at Herrison Hall, Valentine cakes and sweets, preserves, a quiz and a murder mystery evening.
Like all community plays, this has a huge cast, aged from one to 85, a large and excellent band, directed by Tim Laycock (who also composed original music) and a host of willing volunteers backstage.
If you have never been to a community play before, this one is certainly not to be missed. Go along prepared to take part in the whole experience, from walking with the cast around the clever set to watch the scenes as the story unfolds.
it’s at Thomas Hardye School until Saturday 12th April. Some performances are already sold out – book now and don’t miss a memorable slice of Dorchester’s history.