I know the exact moment I started to write ‘Le Grand Return’. Twenty seven minutes past five on the afternoon of June 6th 2014, the 70th anniversary of D Day. That was the moment when a friend sent me an email titled ‘A possible play for you here ……’. It was a link to a story in that day’s Telegraph about Bernard Jordan, a D Day veteran who had absconded from his care home and had been found in Normandy at the anniversary commemorations.
I was inspired and got to work straight away. Stephen King, in his book ‘On Writing’ likens stories to fossils, they are already there, it’s the job of the writer to find them and gently bring them into the light. That’s what it felt like writing ‘Le Grand Return’. The whole thing was written in three weeks. It’s a first draft, the words, the characters, the story just came to me, I felt as if I was only using the gentlest of tugs to get it out. Half way through I got a cast together and we read the the first act. Apart from a few tweaks in rehearsals, the play you will see is the story-fossil I dug out in its original, purest form.
I decided from the outset that I needed to move the story back 20 years, I knew that it would be difficult to find actors in their 90s! Setting it in 1994, on the 50th anniversary meant that I could use actors capable of appearing to be in their late 60s/early 70s. My first cast actually comprised one actor in his 50s, another in his 60s, only Tommy was actually the right age. I think audiences can suspend belief if the actors and the direction are of a high standard.
We toured it in the following year. Audiences everywhere seemed to engage and enjoy it, even southern ones (the play is distinctly northern and there are a couple of light hearted barbs at southerners). We won the inaugural Woodbridge Drama Festival in Sussex and through that went on to the National Final in Woking. But our best response, and I’m not just saying this, was in Saddleworth. We initially took it to The Swan in Dobcross for two sold out nights but such was the response that Michael and Tim kindly asked us back for another three more sold out performances later in the year. As a result the play was entered into the Greater Manchester Fringe and to my amazement won Best New Writing. I say to my amazement because I never imagined a tale of three old chaps escaping to Normandy would resonate with a Fringe audience more used to edgy avant garde productions.
I am very pleased that Le Grand Return is making its own grand return to Saddleworth. Live drama is the most collaborative of the arts – writer, director, actors and audience create the performance, the moment together. Without the audience it’s just a rehearsal. And it’s the most ephemeral art form – every production, every performance is unique, it’s why we love theatre. I can’t wait to re-visit the beautiful theatre at Millgate Arts Centre to see Verity Mann’s new interpretation of my play.I look forward to being in a Saddleworth audience once again to see this brand new production of Le Grand Return.
Saddleworth Players will perform La Grand Return at the Millgate Arts Centre from 1 – 8 February. Tickets available from the Millgate website (millgateartscentre.co.uk) or by telephoning the Box Office on 01457 874644, Tuesdays 2pm–5pm, Wednesdays and Thursdays 2pm–7pm, and Fridays and Saturdays from 9:30am–1pm.