Spinning the Moon, community play, Thomas Hardye School Dorchester

THE people of Dorchester have been working together to create community plays since 1985 and now, after a three-year COVID delay, the seventh, Spinning the Moon, has come to the stage.

The idea of plays performed by and for communities was devised in the late 1970s by Ann Jellicoe for her home town of Lyme Regis, where she died in 2019. She directed the first Dorchester offering, David Edgar’s Entertaining Strangers, performed in St Mary’s Church and two years later at the National Theatre with Judy Dench in a central role. Ann was in the audience for each of the next five plays until Drummer Hodge in 2014, by which time Dorset’s county town was setting records for community plays and a seventh was commissioned from playwright Stephanie Dale.

Two weeks before Spinning the Moon was due on stage, the world was locked down. But the persistently determined group of actors, musicians, back-stage crew and volunteers kept the embers warm and continued to raise awareness, expectation and funds to enable the show to go on, just as soon as was practically possible.

Now, almost 100 performers, dressed (by Dawn Allsopp and her talented team) in costumes from the medieval world before the Tudor period, and a dozen musicians led by musical director and composer Tim Laycock, are telling a story curated from information gleaned from municipal records. Most of the character names were taken from letters, wills and bills of sale from the period 1485 to 1503. Some are still familiar today.

Stephanie Dale wanted to give a voice to women, largely ignored by the monastic and aristocratic writers of the day in their enduring documents.

And then of course as a community play, there had to be acting opportunities for all comers provided by the obligatory processions, big weather events and village fairs. Spinning the Moon is set over the course of important days in the church, and addresses whitewashed ecclesiastical excesses, pickpocketing, witchery, prostitution, societal divisions, rampant sexism, land ownership, royal visits, storms at sea and general merrymaking.

The complicated story is cleverly told in song, dance and narrative. Some characters stand out – Tess Hebditch’s prototype Dowager Countess of Grantham as Ermina Trenchard, Kitty Sansom’s wronged Emma Gawler, Chris Pullen as Robert Skotte, Rachel Carter as Denise Stury, Sam Kelly as young man at Abbotsbury, Tom Archer as the weakling lord of Wolfeton House and Mike Stadden as the Bondsman.

The courtroom scene will probably tighten up as the cast get more used to the space, releasing its great dramatic potential.

The music in this seventh community play is particularly strong, and Tim Laycock (who also plays Old Tom) wrote an anthem cleverly including the names of all seven plays. Chairing the association, Rowan Seymour also played one of the very impressive Cunning Women. She, and many others in the company, have performed in all seven plays over the 38 exciting years.

Spinning the Moon continues until 15th April.


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