Ashford-in-the-Water, to give it its full name, is a beautiful village in the Peak District, a few miles from Bakewell. It is apparently mentioned as a Royal Manor in the Domesday Book. Today, it’s well equipped, attracting a fair stream of tourists to sample the chocolate box Englishness of it all. There are a couple of pubs, several shops and a hotel. There’s also the Ashford War Memorial Institute, which is essentially a village hall. When I arrive at the Institute with Mandy Ivory-Castile, New Perspectives’ Production Manager, we’re greeted its Secretary Carol. Carol’s husband, Colin, is already inside boarding up the snooker table in the back room to convert it into a dressing room before tonight’s performance of Watching the Living. There’s a message on the wall addressed to members of the Ashford Snooker Club announcing the unavailability of the snooker room. A yellowed photograph of the seven member of the Snooker Club from 1943 hangs on the other wall. All men in three piece suits, cross-armed, proudly displaying their silverware on the ground in front of them.
On the drive over through the misty windy roads of the Peaks, Mandy explained that the expectation with the promoters – the Institute would be the promoter in this case – is that they will provide the cast and crew with a meal after the get-in and before the show. You get a real range of meals, she says, ranging from a cheese sandwich to freshly home-cooked vegetable moussaka and salad. She’s been to Ashford before so she knows what to expect, in terms of both food and how easy the get-in will be. With the village halls, she explains, it’s relatively easy because you can just drive the van straight up to the front door. It’s the nature of rural touring that you won’t always know in advance what the venue will be like. The show will usually only play one night in rural venues and it’s not until you get there that you discover how much of a challenge it’s going to be.
From the minute the New Perspectives van arrives, the two actors, Elizabeth Marsh and Anthony Wise, are as much a part of the get-in as Mandy and the Stage Manager Jeremy Rowe. They’ve done this so many times now they know exactly where everything goes and the van’s contents is unloaded very quickly. It’s a big set and there’s something rather exciting about seeing a naturalistic set scattered across the village hall. Like a Cornelia Parker sculpture.
With everything unloaded into the venue, it’s time for a cup of tea. Liz has brought Mr Kipling apple pies, which is a reference to the show that I don’t get. “You’ll understand when you watch the show” they tell me. Jeremy cheerily tells us over tea of the time he nearly asphyxiated on dry ice while hoisting a minor celebrity through a cauldron. Liz suggests I write a play where the audience simply watch the cast and crew do the get in and then they just sit in silence and have tea and biscuits. After this, everyone gets back to work.
The set is built. Tony tells everyone how much he hates Christmas as he spreads out a carpet and Liz hangs up the curtains. Everyone agrees with Mandy that Die Hard II is a particularly fine piece of cinema, as she assembles the hospital bed. Outside, the sun sets and the chill in the hall starts to make itself felt. Tony tells Liz that one of her dresses feels “quite damp” and she might want to hang it up. Suddenly there’s a brief blast of music. A silence creeps over the room as the work becomes more technical and requires more concentration. As five o’clock approaches though, the subject of food comes up. Mandy assures the actors that the venue has promised to provide a hot meal. The excitement at this prospect is palpable.
The show itself only represents a small proportion of the day and, particularly when it’s been going a while, it’s quite fixed in performance, the actors tell me:
It stops being the defining factor of the day. It’s all the other stuff: what we had to eat, what the weather was like, what the journey was like, whether the promoters were friendly or not. All of that stuff.
Liz is very clear about this: “How I remember the venues is usually to do with what we ate.”
One of the other Memorial committee members, Lorna, arrives with our dinner: a hearty autumn vegetable pie, potatoes and brownies for desert. Lorna, who is originally from Sheffield, has booked bands as well as theatre for this space. She wants to make sure she always get high quality performances for the community she lives in. Like everyone at the venue, Lorna is a volunteer. She explains that it’s important to have high standards for the work they bring in: “we don’t want anything amateurish”. While they may get a company like New Perspectives with recent runs of shows at Soho Theatre and Off Broadway to visit Ashford, it’s still harder to attract the younger generation:
We do tend to attract the older range of the spectrum. Almost everyone’s over sixty. I’ve got a teenage daughter at the comp and I offered them free tickets but they still wouldn’t come. A lot of them are studying drama too. They’ll go to the theatre if it’s a school trip to Sheffield or Derby but we can’t get them to come here.
With Lorna’s pie baking in the oven, Liz comes in and starts to fill an apple with dark corn syrup. She’s from London and this is her first experience of small-scale touring to rural venues. She echoes Lorna’s comment about the intimacy of these kinds of spaces:
People are so excited that you’ve come to their village and that you’ve spent two or three hours building the set in their village hall. For them to be able to just go a few doors down to see a play and then be back home having a cup of tea is pretty great.
As the house opens, the front row is immediately filled up. There are over seventy audience members tonight so the exact number of chairs has been counted out. The chances are people just turning up on the night is very slim indeed. By ten past, most of the audience are here. Ticket money goes in a box marked “Ticket Money” and everyone enters the raffle on the way in. The winning tickets will be called at the interval. Prizes tonight are biscuits, chocolates and a bottle of red. Carol and Colin have got the bar set up and are discussing the absence of tonic water and the width of Colin’s lemon slices.
Almost everyone in the audience knows everyone else. This may be an obvious point and you could say that it’s not exclusive to village halls (take most nights at BAC or CPT) but the distinction here is that the audience hasn’t focused itself around the work. They are not writing about it or making similar work themselves. They are here because this is their home and this is their community. The performance is an event that can act as a point of focus and discussion for that community. It may be close to their front room but, significantly, it’s one space rather than a series of small rooms. There’s nowhere else that this play is being performed than here in this hall, with these photographs and paintings. It’s a communal civic space built to memorialise those who were lost to that community. The cast and crew are their guests and it feels right that the hosts feed them as part of the arrangement.
Small-scale touring blurs many of the lines we draw between “amateur” and “professional”. The cast become part of the crew for large parts of the day; the promoters are volunteers with full-time jobs of their own; Lorna was our cook and Carol and Colin were our bartenders. Everyone chips in and does their bit to make the event happen. This doesn’t mean that the performance itself feels in any way compromised by the context it’s being performed in though. Jane Upton’s writing is poetic and visceral and the Daphne Du Maurier stories she adapts are dark, nasty, suburban, supernatural horror (echoes of Thomas Mann and Edgar Allen Poe), a reminder of the twisted imagination of a writer it’s easy to take for granted. The two monologues are performed with absolute conviction and poise by Wise and Marsh and the structural trickery by which it’s suggested that the two may be aspects of the same story got the audience huddled in small groups trying to decipher events together afterwards. There’s a distance and respect for the cast and company. They are outsiders and this feels right. Soon it will be time for the get out. The van will be loaded up again and it will be time for the trip back to Nottingham through the misty Derbyshire night. As the hall stands empty again and the boards are removed to reveal the grand old snooker table, it will be almost as if the players were never here: nothing left but a shared communal memory.
Main image – Watching the Living. Photo: Julian Hughes