IF you are old enough to remember a time when many houses did not have indoor toilets and when soft loo roll did not exist (torn up newspaper was often used), you can wryly sympathise at the slightly disgusted puzzlement of the young cast members of Stronghold of Happiness, a play-within-a-play, adapted by Dorset writer Devina Symes from her novel of the same name.
Set in Dorset in 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, the scene is the rehearsal room of the New Hardy Players. The cast is reading through the script, and hearing the memories of the two now-elderly central characters, on whose wartime love story the play is based.
The rehearsal is led by the “director”, New Hardy Players stalwart Tom Archer, who identifies the date and location of each scene, and intersperses the action with opportunities for the cast to question Ella and Peter Samways (Chrissie and Barry White) about their young lives in a Dorset village.
This framing device allows the story to unfold along its dramatic and occasionally shocking path, and to give a context for lives less than a century ago, but before the NHS and decades away from treating abused women fairly, rather than blaming them, with historical details such as poaching on the landlord’s estate for food and the toilet arrangements of a poor farmworker’s family.
The story features the snobbishness of the time – Dr Harvey, the father of young Ella (Tilda Sansome) believes the “peasant” Peter Samways (Harry Cockerill) is not good enough for her. He wants her to pay attention to lord-of-the-manor Charles Harrington (Jordan Wiseman), but she is deeply in love and wants to marry Peter. He joins the RAF, hoping a military career will impress Dr Harvey.
War changes every aspect of people’s lives – as we are all too aware now, with the horrors of invasions and war in Ukraine and Armenia – and Devina Symes has drawn on real-life stories and the actual evacuation of an entire community (Tyneham on the Purbecks) for the scenes from the Home Front and the requisitioning of a fictional village by the Army
As well as the historical accuracy of the details of everyday life, Stronghold of Happiness also examines changing attitudes – not only the class-consciousness of Ella’s father, but the blaming of a victim of rape who finds herself pregnant by her callous attacker.
Throughout their wartime separations and Ella’s horrific experiences, Peter’s parents are a tower of strength – they were beautifully portrayed by Brian Caddy and Fran Sansome. Amelia Chorley was touching as Ella’s devoted friend Hannah, and Rob Sansom had a convincing RAF swagger as Edward Spencer, the officer who becomes Peter’s great friend.
Proceeds of the rehearsed reading, which played to a capacity audience in the Corn Exchange, will be going to the West Dorset Women’s Refuge Welfare Committee charity.
Devina Symes’ novel and play take their name from a quotation from Virginia Woolf: “Peasants [who] are the great sanctuary of sanity, the country, the last stronghold of happiness …[and] when they disappear, there is no hope for the race.”