THE south coastal area of Dorset has something of a reputation for community plays, and it all started with Anne Jellicoe’s The Reckoning, back in 1978.
Since then both Lyme Regis and Dorchester have staged memorable plays about incidents in the history of their settlements, and this week the latest, Lyme and the Sea, opened at the Marine Theatre. It is native writer Andrew Rattenbury’s fourth such play for the town, looking not at one moment in history, but at the relationship of the residents with their perpetual, threatening, mesmerising and magnetic watery neighbour.
The whole idea of a community play is that anyone who wants to be involved is welcome, resulting in a wide range of ages, abilities and approaches on stage for the “finished” product. One of the wonderful moments of Lyme and the Sea on the opening night was when the company, 43-strong cast, who had been rehearsing for many months without the presence of an audience, suddenly discovered a line that was so funny that the laughter didn’t stop, leaving the next speaker stranded on stage waiting for a chance to say his line.
Andrew Rattenbury’s latest offering is often very, very funny. Its wide scope is guided by two locals, starting the show extracting salt from the sea and ending extracting money from ever-more gullible tourists – a neat arc. The writer also has some fun with his famous great-great-great-great … grandfather, the notorious smuggler, Jack Rattenbury (cue a rousing version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirate King).
Because it’s essentially an ensemble piece, it would be invidious to name individual performers – and almost impossible to find out who is who from the programme. Musical director Declan Duffy chose some poignant and rousing music for the show, adapting old spirituals and shantys, bringing in some modern folk songs and writing some new music for the occasion. It worked brilliantly well with an almost-on-stage choir showing just how well a community can sing.
There were some sensational singing voices among the actors too, and a couple of band members shed their instruments and donned a bit of costume to bring a famous character to life on stage.
I can’t remember ever enjoying a community play so much, nor feeling that this really was what the genre is all about. Relief at the relaxation of pandemic restrictions, summer weather, the sea at its loveliest and a true appreciation of a special place on the Dorset coast brought performers and audience together for an evening of information and entertainment, laughter, tears, riches and poverty, tradition and togetherness.
It’s a brilliant show, ably and enthusiastically performed by a terrific team of performers.
It’s on until Saturday. If there are any more seats available in the former bathhouse that is the Marine Theatre, try to get one.