The Keble Martin Project

We’ve had a busy summer, creating three (very) different productions with three (very) different groups of young people, delivering a week of poetry for a group of primary schools and mounting the 11th edition of Fringe TheatreFest, all alongside our usual programme of performances.

This blog is about the first of our summer projects, which we delivered for Wolf + Water Arts Company.

The project wasn’t ours to begin with.  It was planned that it would be delivered by Peter Harris, the inspirational founder and director of Wolf + Water.  Peter had done the research and been fired up by what he had unearthed about the life and times of the Reverend W. Keble Martin whose main claim to fame was the publication, in 1965, of the Concise British Flora in Colour.  Keble Martin was the Vicar of St Michael’s Church, Great Torrington, from 1934 to 1943.  Wolf +Water is Torrington based and the project was a partnership with the drama department at Great Torrington School – led by Mark Pluckrose.

Unfortunately, for health reasons, Peter was unable to bring the project to fruition.  So a week or so before work was due to begin we took over.  Fortunately Jess Burford Redgrove had also been taken on for the project, initially to assist Peter but now as part of the team with multi story.

We found it quite a challenge to take on a devising project at this stage.  We weren’t in at the birth.  We had the research material and Peter’s comments but he, quite rightly, didn’t want to impose the approach he might have taken on us.  We had to find our own relationship with the material – along with discovering with the students involved what their connection might be.

The process of creating the piece therefore felt rather different from other devising projects we’ve been involved in.  We usually find an unconscious engagement with a project that is simply waiting to be unearthed.  When it reveals itself we recognise it. This is so whether it’s a brand new play, an adaptation of an existing story or a commission.  In this instance we realised that we had to feel our way towards a truly meaningful engagement at the same time as trying to engender an excitement in the 20-odd year 9s we were working with; trying to find the useful intersection between their 13/14-year old selves and a vicar born in 1877 who published his life-work, an illustrated and annotated book of flowers, after a 65-year labour of love, when he was 88, and who then died 4 years later in 1969, some 35 years before they were born.

As usual we set-about building a compost-heap of ideas:  exploring Keble Martin’s biography, listing the wild flowers we knew, searching for songs about flowers, looking at the students concerns about Torrington now.  We got ideas onto their feet at the earliest opportunity – looking for meaning in the staged representation that might be more than was intended but which could be dramatically rich.

But even after 3 of the 6 sessions available to us we still didn’t know if we had anything.  Anything that was engaging us – and the students – beyond the superficial level of getting the job done.

The students were a typically mixed drama class.  Some able to see straightaway what the job was and able to commit to the journey of discovery.  Some needing to know more precisely where we might be heading.  Some seemingly just along for the ride.  And, as is our wont, we over-estimated some and under-estimated others.

Working in a school is a million miles away from working in the rehearsal room.  The play is not necessarily the thing.  If the dedicated drama studio is needed for something else – exams in this instance – then it’s off to the canteen with its tricky acoustic and the noise of the kitchen.  And almost everything else has precedence in terms of the students time and attendance.  We lost quite a few to a trip to the Ardèche as well as to the usual sporting events and special classes.  None of this was a surprise but it does mean that you can’t build carefully, layer on layer, like you might in a more controlled rehearsal process – you are ducking and weaving and often involved in damage limitation.  This is not to devalue what happens in schools.  The work we see, the quality of teaching, the range of skills that students develop is phenomenal.  But it shouldn’t be confused with theatre -making in a dedicated environment.  They have different goals and different values.

At the heart of the project were the students and their needs, even though the culmination of the project was a public performance – in the self-same church where Keble Martin had served as vicar.  Providing an enabling framework for the students to devise within – without unduly imposing ourselves – was the challenge.  In the end we felt we had to do a bit more heavy-lifting than we had initially envisaged and began to give some shape to the compost heap of ideas rather sooner than we might otherwise have done.

The process of shaping a suggested script – jamming together the ideas and images that had emerged so far – also helped us realise what was interesting us in the content of the performance piece that was emerging.  The dogged obsessiveness of the man was something we recognised – an obsession that rather dominated other aspects of his life.  His cheerful battle with the ageing process is also something we could relate to.  We framed that within an element that bubbled out of an improvisation – a group of young people on an expedition that started as Keble Martin’s own adventures as a lad with his siblings and friends on Dartmoor but which turned into a quest to understand what drove Keble Martin.  Finally the process had paid dividends and we had a structure to play with that we could all invest in.

At this point some of the students were significantly able to up their game.  The project was blessed with a particularly mature young woman who took on the role of Keble Martin.  It is a testament to her abilities that no one, at any stage, questioned why Keble Martin was being played by a woman.  She was so clearly the person for the job.  There were other emotionally mature performances from young students presenting such characters as the wife who finds herself playing second fiddle to a bunch of flowers.

And other students began to find their own niche within the structure and fill out that niche.  We had a great scene as a platoon of Japanese-Knotweed-destroyers went into action on behalf of a bewildered couple of home-owners.  That was huge fun, and of course energy levels go up when there’s a bit of fun to be had.  But just as telling is that the students who had been most difficult to engage became most committed to the piece when they realised the seriousness of intent.  They enjoyed the exploration of the mysteries of the adult world.

There were revelations for us right to the end.  We had just the one day in the church to bring it all together.  We spent the morning setting up the tech with Marcos Willatts:  lights, sound and a couple of projectors to flash up images on walls of the church – flowers and portraits as you might expect but also some great footage of the Torrington Commons and other parts of the locality shot and edited by Mark Pluckrose, images of the both World Wars, steam-trains, violet-sellers – an eclectic mix.  The students arrived after lunch to sort out the geography of where things were going to happen within the church.  They had had an initial exploration a few days earlier with Jess but it wasn’t until  this day that we knew precisely who was going to be with us and that, together, we had the church to ourselves for a few hours.

During that day it was truly inspiring to see a number of students who were dealing with some quite acute challenges really coming good.  The challenges ranged from issues around social interaction to problems with the (seemingly) simple act of speaking.  They didn’t just rise to the occasion, they relished it.  The performance was a leap beyond any of the rehearsals – including the dress/tech rehearsal in the afternoon.  Some of them had suddenly found their feet – found where they wanted to be.  And some of them wouldn’t go home afterwards.  They were there coiling cables or just making a lingering exit right up to the end of the get-out.  Through working together to examine the story of a rather singular late-Victorian vicar who pursued his obsession for 65 years, they found a place and a group where they could be comfortable in their own singularity.  This is one of the (many) important things Drama, as a subject, can do.

But the performance wasn’t only an exercise in self-development.  It moved and excited audience members in a variety of ways.  It was particularly pleasing that the present vicar of Great Torrington felt it spoke eloquently to him about the business of being a vicar – both the pressures and privileges that come with the post.

Huge thanks to Wolf+Water for inviting us to work on the project.  Thank you to Jess for everything she brought to the project..  Thank you to Mark for advancing the project in the drama sessions that we weren’t involved with.  Thank you to the students who performed for their commitment and those who weren’t able to perform for their creative input earlier in the process.  The only regret is that we would have loved to see what Peter Harris might have done with the project.  He has been a truly inspiring theatre-maker with a distinct vision,  Working with him rather than instead of him would have been a very special treat.


Stirred by The Angry Brigade

We went to see The Angry Brigade at Plymouth Theatre Royal last night:  Paines Plough‘s production of a new play by James Graham.  Set in 1971 the play focuses on a four-person Police unit set-up specifically to hunt down the self-styled Angry Brigade and on four of the eponymous anarchist group holed up in a safe-house.

They play is still with me; images floating in front of my mind’s eye, questions provoked by the piece still buzzing in my brain.  Though the play and the production don’t feel to me to be fully realised – more like a piece still groping for its final form – it was thoroughly entertaining – presented and performed with tremendous commitment and attention. Gnawing at the questions the production provokes is perhaps of more import than worrying about whether the piece entirely succeeds in its own terms.

Though the world of the play is 1971 we are encouraged, through the phraseology, to be aware of comparisons with the 2010s from the off.  Comparing and contrasting attitudes to protest past and present.  So it’s not historiography.  It’s urgently now.

It’s very much a play about ideas – and all the better for it.  The first half takes place in the operations centre of the newly formed Special Branch.  In order to get inside the minds of the elusive anarchists, the four-person squad research and absorb as much as they can of prevailing ‘alternative’ ideology.  There’s wit and nuance in the different relationship that the four police officers have with the material – some finding a degree of succour or at least interest, others being repulsed or, at best, nonplussed.  So Situationist theory is expounded in a dramatic and developing context as events unfold – a series of bombings and the hunt for the bombers.  The outside world, in the shape of suspects and informers, is brought into the microcosm of the operations centre which gives some sense of a larger context.  It reaches a veritable climax at the end of the half when half-acknowledged ideological and personal shifts burst out into the open as the squad celebrate finding the suspects.

We spent the interval gleefully recounting what we’d hugely enjoyed – and puzzling over what it was we felt was missing.  We looked forward to the momentum from the end of the first half launching us into the second half.

But it didn’t happen like that.

The second half sees the same four actors as four of the Angry Brigade in a particular house.  And it becomes largely introspective as they hunker down to evade detection.  It seems to seek to provide a personal psychological insight into why these people found themselves in this situation.  In particular a young woman whose story becomes the centrepiece in this half is seen to be driven by childhood trauma in a way that I found disappointingly pat.  For me, the descent into the personal brought into clear relief what was missing from the equation.  And that is an adequate dramatic sense of the prevailing social/political surround in terms, particularly, of youthful protest – which was very different in the late 60s/early 70s to that which now prevails.

The contemporary early 70s rhetoric and prevailing mythology saw youthful protest – and illegal protest at that – as the norm.  Students certainly and young people generally should be left-wing, hedonistic and wanting to change the world.  There was something wrong with them if they weren’t upsetting the older generations.  And this was reflected in popular culture – particularly music.  There were any number of radical left-wing splinter group papers on University campuses and sold on street corners.  So, importantly, the Angry Brigade were not an isolated phenomenon.  They were not odd.  They went one step beyond but there was a culture from which they developed organically – almost inevitably.

There was – for me – very little sense of that in the play.  And I wonder whether that’s because it was written and directed by people born well after that period.  It’s difficult enough for those of us who lived those years to really take in how different the world is.  How completely the narrative of those years has been re-written, re-colonised – particularly by New Labour.  How ‘hippy’ was a badge of honour and a term of endearment rather than a sneer or a smear.  How protest was seen as purposeful rather than an aberration and that changing the world was a duty not a deluded fantasy.  How much more difficult for someone brought up within the knowing pragmatist mind-set of the New Labour/Tory project to believe that such things could ever have been. So there was something really rather 2014 about the depiction of 1971.  Something rather clean and sober and polite and self-knowing – rather nice – still can’t quite put my finger on it.  That matters when you’re trying to understand the present by examining the past.  The context is crucial and it may be the context rather than the inherent nature of young people that has changed.  Who creates the context is then the important question.

Two other quick thoughts – both prompted by the post-discussion:

The director commented the both he and the writer wanted to create a play about politics – which I applaud.  I’m hungry for such plays.  It’s why we made the two hour journey to Plymouth and back from Barnstaple.  I go out of my way to find plays with a bit of political meat on them to chew.  But he then added that of course presenting a play about politics is problematic.  And it did look as though that fear had slightly warped the production.  Certainly the opening scene was really rather uncomfortable as it sought to sugar-coat some interesting and necessary exposition in rather over-played character comedy.  It got us off to a false start which meant the play didn’t settle for another 15 minutes or so.  And there continued to be a certain amount of theatrical trickery that simply drew attention to itself rather than illuminating the central concerns of the piece.  It felt again a rather 2014 take on politics – coolly ironic and detached rather than the unquestioning passion of the 1970s.  It may have been deliberate but if the piece was looking at the difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’ it got in the way of understanding ‘then’.

The second quick thought springs from the fact that someone at the post-show discussion was a very good friend of one of the Angry Brigade depicted and was clear that – though he very much enjoyed the production – the representation was nothing like the person he had known.  This does seem to me to matter in this case because of the ‘excuse’ that is offered (a damaged childhood) for why this particular character ends up as part of a bombing campaign.  If you’re going to ‘explain’ the phenomenon  of The Angry Brigade in terms of personal psychology rather than the social and political context then you’ve got to be sure of your facts.  One way round that is to create a fictional parallel as Howard Brenton did in Magnificence – written just two years after the Angry Brigade bombings but set at far enough of a remove to give him complete dramatic license.  Now there is a play I would travel to see.

I really recommend The Angry Brigade.  There’s lots to bite on and an invigorating production and high-quality performances to enjoy.  I know it’s playing Oxford Playhouse and Warwick Arts Centre so catch it if you can.

These thoughts are only half formed.  If you’ve something to add – or to challenge – please do so.


Selling a serious play on small-scale touring circuits.

GillWe know we’re not brilliant at marketing ourselves.  We struggle when it comes to appropriate, pithy copy.  We fight shy of blowing our own trumpets, even though we know that audiences really value our qualities and our experience as actors.  And we are wary of owning up to the essential seriousness of the plays we offer.  Yet we know that these are just the sorts of play that we look out for in a theatre brochure and we know that others are also looking for the same thing. We particularly look to place our work on rural touring circuits and in studio theatres because that is the scale and ambiance that our productions are made for.

Here are a couple of brief reports – originally Facebook entries – that reflect our struggle to get the marketing right for Almost Heaven:


Engrossing conversations with some of our audience at The Acorn after Almost Heaven last night. They were all very taken indeed with the show and were full of advice as to how we should reach the wider audience they feel it deserves. As you’d expect, about as many different opinions as people. Some would change the title though most really liked it. Some would change the poster image though most really liked it. They had ambitious plans for us in terms of venues: Start with the Drum in Plymouth then either the Menier Chocolate Factory or Hampstead Theatre in London. [It’s all right, we know it doesn’t really happen like that.]

We particularly wanted to know what had attracted them to the show and how they would describe the piece to attract other people. They all agreed that they loved that it was a serious drama that made demands on them. And that, generally, that is what they were looking for from theatre. So they would emphasise the drama, the interest in the relationship and the quality of the acting.

We know from the intensity of people’s reactions that we have something special here. We’re listening hard to learn how best to spread the news.

We’re at The Lyric Theatre Bridport tonight and we have further outings in Lincolnshire, Huddersfield and London over the next couple of months with other performances to come in the New Year.


The Lyric Theatre in Bridport is a most wonderful place – all that a creative space should be. And Niki McCretton, whose space it is, is a most wonderful theatre maker. We had a very special day there on Saturday as we prepared for and played Almost Heaven.

After the show we shared bread and nibbles with those of the audience who wished to stay and had a fascinating discussion circling around the content of the play. We’re proud that it triggered such wide ranging and thoughtful observations.

We also focussed-in (as we did post-show in Penzance the night before) on how we should be representing the play to other potential audiences.

The two main messages that came across were that, (a) whatever our starting point in creating the piece, the play is centrally about the relationship between the two characters and (b) that we should be promoting the complexity and essential seriousness of the piece. Allied to these points was the observation that we write too much blurb – we’ve got to fine it down. Our audience were quite united on these points and quite forthright in expressing them.

So Almost Heaven is not about words, or rhetoric or the power of stories or Nimrod or Babel or God and his angels or neurons and synapses; it’s about two people with a past reaching for each other as time runs out. And the play is complex – it’s not one you can sit back on. Much of the story of their relationship – both past and present – is implied rather than made explicit, and you have to be alive to what’s not being said. There’s plenty of wit but there is pain and a certain amount of ugliness as well. Furthermore, they’re a couple of bright people. Their discourse is at times fast and furious and wide ranging and you might find yourself running to catch up.

Now to encapsulate that last paragraph in one pithy sentence!

Little Brother and Little Sister launches a year’s curriculum

LBLSbrochureimageWe love being used. We love schools getting the maximum return out of our visits. We’re excited when one of our productions is the springboard for further creative and imaginative work. So we are particularly delighted to have launched a whole year’s curriculum for an entire local Primary School.

At the end of our production of Little Brother and Little Sister, the Wicked Stepmother is still on the loose. She has been chased into the deep, dark heart of the forest but no-one knows what has become of her. Well now the children at Forches Cross Primary School do know. They know that when Little Sister and her new husband, the King, fell asleep after a picnic down by the river, Wicked Stepmother crept back out of the forest with a drop and a half of magic water. The drop froze the King into a statue. The half drop froze Little Sister apart from her eyes. She is still able to cry. To cry just twelve drops over an extended period of time. If these twelve drops are all collected together they can save Little Sister and the King.

The creatures of the wood witnessed what happened and they find Little Brother to tell him. In a series of workshops with different year groups we had rabbits and squirrels and hedgehogs and foxes and crows and owls and slow-worms and badgers and a robin and a dolphin (?) retelling the story to Little Brother. And letting him know that the Wicked Stepmother intends to move Little Sister all around the world so that it will be very difficult to collect all twelve tears.

As you might imagine, these world-wide environments correspond to environments that the children will be exploring as part of their curriculum – from Barnstaple Town to Exmoor, from the Amazon to the Arctic and many points in between. And they will have email contact with Little Brother and with a friend of his, an expert, who will visit the children during the year.

If all works out right and all the tears are safely gathered then they should be meeting Little Brother and Little Sister again at the end of the school year. What a great way to wrap up the curriculum in an imaginative and playful adventure. And how lucky we are to work with such a school.

Every Mother’s Son as part of a residency

A little tired but hugely invigorated by a busy three-day residency at Thurston Community College in Suffolk.

This was our fifth visit to Thurston we already knew what an inspiring place to work in it is, and that it boasts a particularly visionary drama department. The students are exceptionally well motivated and proactive – eagerly seizing what ever’s offered, running with it and making it their own.

We gave three performances of Every Mother’s Son (aka Josh’s Monsters). Though a challenging piece of work, designed for adult audiences, this was offered to Year 11s (GCSE students) as the basis for a performance review.

Each student had a double ticket: they saw the piece in school time as a year group; they then came back to one of the evening performances with a ‘significant adult’ in tow to re-experience the piece as part of a more general audience and to have the chance to tease out the inter-generational aspects of the play. We also led a workshop exploring some of the devising and writing process that we went through. We listened to some of the original oral-testimony and road-tested a number of approaches to theatricalising it.  We played with different ways of developing the lives of the characters.  We began to look at how we edit and organise the material we were creating.

For Year 12s we led a Physical Theatre session; for Year 13s a session on the clues in Shakespeare’s language for an actor; and for Year 10s a session on Storytelling-theatre in order to contextualise the 2 performances of Beauty & the Beast that we gave to Years 9 and 10.

So 5 performances and 4 workshops in 3 days.

With all the get-ins and get-outs and the 6 hour travel each way the days were full to bursting but the Thurston welcome and the skill of the teachers meant that we got a huge amount out of it as well as the students.

Thank you Thurston.Image

Twelve Wild Ducks at Ilfracombe Academy

A most interesting time performing Twelve Wild Ducks to 60 GCSE Drama students at The Ilfracombe Academy.  

As always it was a pleasure to perform the play – very physical, fast-moving, a mix of comic and dramatic.  What was brilliant for us was how engaged the students were with the story.

This is one of our 13 plays for Primary School children and family audiences.  Though at heart it can be seen as a story about a girl’s particularly traumatic adolescence, that is pretty much buried beneath the folk-tale construct.  This certainly wasn’t the sort of issue-based drama with which most GCSE students are primarily familiar.  It was great to see them allowing themselves to engage their imaginations and to read the metaphor.

It was also interesting to hear them relating what they’d seen to their understanding of Brecht’s practice.  As part of their course they’re required to devise a piece of work based around a particular practitioner.  Most of them choose Brecht.  Though Twelve Wild Ducks is not consciously Brechtian – and really can’t claim to be a socio-political critique – it was interesting to be reminded just how many of the tools he used have become our normal stock-in-trade.  Multi-role playing, a particular use of song, indicative scenery and props, narration, an episodic structure, gestus and so on and so on.  If nothing else, the session was a useful reminder and reinforcement for the students about the Brechtian building-blocks as they create their own devised work.  Hopefully it was more than that in terms of offering them a range of tools beyond the purely Brechtian.  

It was particularly interesting to be using a piece for young audiences as a stimulus for their work given that last week we were also working with GCSE Drama students who were looking at Brecht as their model practitioner but this time we were presenting Every Mother’s Son as a starting-point for discussion.  Every Mother’s Son is a very different beast.  It’s made for an adult audience and is centrally about parenthood.  Though it could be described as ‘epic’ (in the Brechtian usage of the word) in the sense that the play starts domestically and opens out to embrace far larger socio-political themes, the style of presentation is much less influenced by the Brechtian heritage.

Which ultimately will be of more use to the students remains to be seen but it is certainly making us think further about what we can most usefully offer to students in Year 9-11 bracket.

The Ilfracombe Academy want us back to perform Twelve Wild Ducks to their Year 10s as an introduction to Brecht.