Great theatrical events can happen anywhere, not just in theatres. Sometimes you don't need a huge great set, elaborate costume changes and hundreds of lighting cues - don't get me wrong, that stuff is good but all you really need are talented performers, a great story and an interesting way of telling that story with emotion, humour and sensitivity. And a space for the performers and a space for the audience. If your story is worth telling, the audience will listen anywhere. This is what happened on Saturday 18 April at Gressenhall Village Hall when I was in the audience for the premiere performance of 'Momentous Times'.
I was fortunate enough to be asked along to an initial rehearsal about a year ago, where I had the chance to just listen to the voices of these characters. Even back then in the early stages of rehearsals, it was a powerful sound. Fast-forward to April 2015 and the piece has become a compelling, moving and funny theatrical journey through the lives of 5 women touched by the First World War. These characters are real people. The source material is diaries, letters and research. The performance is a compilation of that source material, meticulously edited to create a seamless narrative that charts the significant and the mundane in the lives of these women, as they negotiate their way through World War 1. The female characters are a colourful and very likable lot including a German school-girl, an American opera singer living in Eastern Europe, a charity worker from Scotland, an Australian who was the third woman to climb Mount Popocatepetl and an English governess living in Moscow. What made this piece so compelling was the clever interweaving of the story from different nationalities perspectives. This was perhaps the most poignant aspect of the production, to hear from both allied and 'enemy' - whatever that means. It was very moving to hear from a German girl's war-time diary directly after hearing an English account of the field hospitals. These were ordinary women who led extraordinary lives and who were all profoundly affected by the events of World War 1, wherever in the world they happened to be.
The staging of 'Momentous Times' was simple but, as is often the case, very effective. Just a hat stand (so useful in theatre!), a board decorated with flags and placards (very Brechtian) displaying names of countries, signs showing the date, chairs and a step-ladder. The cast moved so smoothly around the playing area, sometimes swapping seats and sometimes moving up and down the step-ladder to create height. It was almost dance-like in its fluidity and was beautiful to watch. What I particularly liked were the little touches of theatrical glitter, just sprinkled through the performance and adding so much to the atmosphere. By theatrical glitter I mean a smattering of unobtrusive sound effects that emanated from the cast at certain moments, working to set the scene and to elevate the experience from a rehearsed reading to a theatrical event. I loved the delicate clucking and scratching of hens, the irritating hum of a bluebottle, the nostalgia filled chug of a steam train. Effective and yet subtle.
By the time the sign was flipped over to reveal the year 1918, the audience felt as though they knew these women well. We had heard about their hardships, their love-lives, there daring escapes, their bad times and good times and now the war was over. But what happened to them all? We must know! Right at the end the cast slowly turned around their folders to reveal pictures of these women, the real people not just characters, and we were able to see the faces of the women we had spent the last hour with. It was a very touching moment and a perfect end to a momentous theatrical experience.
'Momentous Times' is currently available to perform in a venue near you. The productions runs for just over an hour with all proceeds going directly to the British Red Cross.
For more information, please contact Leah Spencer on 01366 328536