THE idea of a play which happens in various locations around a town or village, or even a city, is one of the oldest theatrical ideas in this country, with roots going back to Miracle and later Mystery Plays, acted out on carts by local guilds, bringing Bible stories to the masses.
When community plays were all the rage, with the great John Oram in charge of local tales such as Shillingstone and Shaftesbury, they were often promenade performances, with multiple acting spaces within one large auditorium, be it school hall, theatre or tent.
At the Edinburgh Fringe, venues such as different parts of the Water of Leith and the Botanical Gardens have been used to tell respectively a Sherlock Holmes story and the life of botanist Carl Linneaus, as he went around the gardens giving plants their Latin names.
It is therefore very fitting that when Wimborne Community Theatre decided to put on a show commemorating the First World War, they sought out tales of people from the town, eventually using actual objects left behind. There was an autograph album belonging to Gertrude Coggin and signed by patients in the town’s Red Cross Hospital, the diary of Olive Harcourt, a volunteer at the same hospital, Parish Magazines of the time, poetry, letters and telegrams, and the company decided to use five very different spaces to bring these tales to life. All begin as the “audience” is taken back in time a whole century when the real-life Minster clock chimes eight and two youngsters run on to the Green, to be confronted by an elderly lady with her own memories.
The action starts and ends on the Minster Green, and in four spaces around the town, as the latest troops leave the cornmarket, the mother of four Angell sons who fought in the war buys some beans at the local ironmongers (inside the Priests House Museum), children enacting vignettes as part of their war effort are interrupted by a soldier with shell shock in the ironmongers garden, and a variety show is put on by the patients and nurses in the hospital, upstairs at Church House. The ingenious writing and construction of the work meant that the audience could be split into groups, so that these four scenes were actually performed three times each, simultaneously, once for each group, before meeting back at the Minster for a very moving finale. What they Left Behind comes cleverly to an end with The Last Post – a piece of music that will hopefully never be forgotten, as the War should never be – played on a single bugle by one of the youngsters who had starte the play.
There were some wonderful individual and very strong performances, particularly from Jeff Hart, Clare Small and Archie Hockenhall as the Angell parents and their son Harry, Ed Bersey as narrator and Sergeant Bowran, Tracie Billington-Beardsley as Nurse Coggin, Sue Bullen, Stewart Bullen and Jemima Vivien as the Coles family and all of the younger performers, in the garden scene and both Minster Green scenes.
Everyone played their part with honesty and determination, and to underscore the play, local composer and multi-instrumentalist Karen Wimhurst has written some wonderfully evocative music, to words from the original objects that inspired it, and arranged well known songs from the War. Karen’s opening number in the hospital was operatic, deeply moving, and chilling, with words from the diary of Olive Harcourt and accompanied on piano with a sensitivity far beyond her years, and with just her left hand, by Sophia Benton, a pupil at Queen Elizabeth School. Other songs were accompanied by a small band and the town’s ukulele band, and enhanced by members of two choirs, all to great effect.
This is a very special piece, something that will never happen again, as it is time, space and town-specific. There are four more perfomances, next week, and I would encourage anyone to be a part of it.