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Lichfield Live

Review: Home Fires Burning @ Custard Factory

By Phil Preece on 9th November, 2015

Lichfield Live

Just occasionally you see something that’s packed so full of good stuff you know you’ll be thinking about it for years. This is absolutely the case with Big Script’s latest offering, five plays to commemorate the Armistice by members of this prestigious writer’s group in a production funded by Arts Council England.

It’s the richest of theatrical feasts exploring the effects of WW1 on a range of social classes both at home and abroad, Ian Craddock’s expert direction getting the very best out of his hand-picked cast as they bring to life a fascinatingly diverse host of characters affected by the conflict.

Andy Alsop’s Home Service showed what the lowest Midlands social classes endured during the war with shortages at home and men folk overseas, where a boy was glad to sign up to get a meal. Volunteer for Murder by Andrew McCoy turned the Wildean epigram loose on the whole issue of the conflict using the heartless platitudes that expressed the blind certainties of the upper classes exactly as if Oscar had set the Importance in 1917.

Without Our Consent showed the ironies and inconsistencies of the Women’s Suffrage movement during the conflict with women who had gone on hunger strike for their principles before the war now being urged by Mrs Pankhurt to change allegiance, support the government and offer comfort to the troops.

Martin Drury’s Fading Light movingly showed the terrible results of five years of struggle on the officer classes, once drilled to keep a stiff upper lip and now expected to return to the cosy domesticities of Edwardian England although still shell-shocked from five years of bombardment during the horrors of trench war.

But even amongst these beautiful miniature productions Liz John’s Perversion of Science shone out as a masterpiece of compression whose overshadowing back-story loomed to monstrous proportions. Here two married scientists came into conflict over the perversion of advancements they had both worked on, in this case the chlorine gas whose use was the first employment of chemical weaponry in war.

The superb quality of the writing brought out the very best in the multi-tasking performers Andy Alsop, Nick Baldock, Caroline Frewin, Oliver Leonard and Rebecca Newman.

Don’t take my word for it – if you love theatre, see this superb production for yourselves.

Home Fires Burning runs at the Mockingbird Theatre at Birmingham’s Custard Factory until Friday (November 13). For tickets priced at £10/£8 call 0845 680 1926 or the Mockingbird on 0121 224 7456. World War 1 wardens will light the way from the car park to the theatre.

Phew!

Phew!  The Big Script writers have just about stopped shaking now. The show went brilliantly - the cast were wonderful and what a varied, orignal and fascinating  show we have - no overlaps, with gripping content which shines a light on the Midlanders' experience of WW1 as well as a glimpse into a German scientist's household where gas warfare pioneer Fritz Haber won't be dissuaded from his grim path.

Even the effects worked well  - recorded sound, eerie lights, smoke machine - all added to the atmosphere.

We're all working hard to get a full audience for our final shows this week - it's been a hard slog - but all worth it and we're really proud of this show.  Now we just want everyone to see it!

Read-through

Rehearsals began with a read-through from our lovely cast.


Caroline Frewin plays Rose in Julia Wright’s Without Our Consent about the suffragette movement’s cooperation with the government during WW1. Former activist Rose  now works in a Longbridge munitions factory and struggles to accept the movement’s U-turn, holding Pankhurst’s right-hand woman Annie Kenney (played by Rebecca Newman) to account. Director Ian Craddock asks the actors about their characters and Rebecca shows us her research notes on Annie Keanney’s past. Julia looks like she’s in heaven!


Andrew McCoy’s satirical play, Volunteer for Murder, has us in hysterics. Nick Baldock plays the mysterious Hercule Privet, with Oli Leonard as poor Geoffrey (the victim). Ali Belbin is our final cast member, playing an upper class mother in Martin Drury’s Fading Light. Ali will be fab – as she always is.


The read-through brings our characters to life, gives us a chance to discuss our plays in detail with the cast, and is a wonderful start to our much-awaited production.


Amanda Whittington

The wonderful Amanda Whittington, a Midlands writer who has several History Plays under her belt, has read our first drafts and provided us with a packed day of discussion.

Andy Alsop’s play draws us into the constant, terrible grief experienced by communities all across the country during WW1. Set in the Black Country, we see women supporting each other as the relentless losses hit home. His characters’ monologues to the audience are a discussion point and Amanda felt that showing more of the action, rather than telling it, might be more dramatically effective.

Liz’s play re-imagines the terrible night when Dr Clara Immerwahr – wife of controversial German scientist Fritz Haber – kills herself in their Berlin home. Is it a last, desperate attempt to stop him pumping chlorine into more enemy trenches? Or a crushing realisation that her husband prizes victory more highly than his scientific ethics - and certainly more than his family? Liz had focused Clara’s dilemma on the her scientific dispute with Fritz, but Amanda felt that dramatically Clara has to be taken to the very depths of personal despair.

 

We had this workshop at the Mockingbird Theatre in the Custard Factory, Birmingham. This is the space where our plays will be performed, which brought some extra focus and atmosphere to the day.

Peter Wynne-Willson

First up is our workshop with a local writer and performer, Peter Wynne-Willson. Peter has worked in theatre in education for many years, and we’re tapping his brains for some tips on Writing for Young People. Our show will include workshops with young people on the historical and creative aspects of the drama, so we need to engage teenagers as quickly and as fully as we can. Will they cope with five (pretty intense) 20 minute plays in one showing?

Hmm. Peter is doubtful. Discussions ensue and the consensus is that we will break down one of the plays during the pre-show workshop, getting the youngsters involved in the action and bringing them close to the emotional core of the drama. Then after lunch we’ll present the other four plays in a shorter run. Sounds like a plan.

Martin Drury’s play explores how women coped when their beloved menfolk were returned to them suffering from shellshock. This aspect will be familiar to many young people, so we agree it’s a good to draw them into the rest of the show. Martin skilfully uses food as a metaphor in his story, contrasting the desperation for food in the trenches with its use at home to ‘make everything all right’. It is the perfect play to deconstruct with our students.

In terms of our developing playscripts, Peter’s headline note is that injustice (or perceived injustice) is a great way of engaging young people: the eternal teenage cry, it’s not fair!

 


Finally!

 Finally! On our third attempt and after hours of form filling and juggling budget calculations, we have actually wrung some cash out of Arts Council England.

The idea for our World War 1 show, Home Fires Burning, was conceived over a year ago – our enthusiasm was infectious and soon the whole group was buzzing with the prospect of developing and staging five short plays set in WW1 penned by Big Script writers.

 

A year later, after two knock-backs from ACE, it was tough to keep that enthusiasm alive…but our endurance has finally paid off and now we have a show to plan.

 

Home Fires Burning will run over Remembrance Week 2015 at the Mockingbird Theatre at the Custard Factory, Digbeth. And now we’ve just about recovered from the shock, we need to turn our wonderful ideas into reality.


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