Playing Alf, a former Bevin Boy

Ian Crickett plays Alf in Le Grand Return

In 1939, my dad was in the final year of his apprenticeship at Platt Brothers in Oldham, at the time probably the biggest manufacturers of textile machinery in the world. As an engineering fitter, his mechanical skills were transferable to the production of aircraft parts which was seen as a vital reserved occupation. So up to June or July 1944 he worked long hours at his trade in what was obviously regarded as a valuable part of the war effort.

In the meantime he’d married my mum in 1942 and I’d come on the scene in May 1944. Then for some unfathomable reason, a month or two later his number came out of Ernie Bevin’s hat, and whatever value had previously been placed on his engineering skills was seemingly cast aside, as he was despatched to Dinnington Colliery near Sheffield to spend his time underground as a Bevin’s Boy for the rest of the war. He hated it. When I was growing up and every house was heated by a coal fire, he always said that everybody should have to go and get their own coal so that they would see what it was like, and should that mythical day ever come it would be the only thing that would ever get him down a mine again.

My character Alf in ‘Le Grand Return’ is another former Bevin’s Boy, and as we are allowed some licence with the script I’ve relocated him to Dinnington, where the only part of my dad’s time there that seemed to provoke anything like a fond memory was of working with the pit ponies. Alf also gives the ponies a mention, so perhaps my contribution to the play can be seen as a tribute to them too.

The play itself concerns itself with just three representatives of a generation who have now largely gone and who served this country well in different ways during a difficult time of conflict. It is funny and poignant in the extreme, and I feel honoured to have a part in it. Do come and share it with us. I can promise you that you won’t be sent down the mine. 

Ian Crickett

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.

Playwright Alan Stockdill on Le Grand Return

Alan Stockdill, playwright

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. 


Alan Stockdill

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.

‘A heroic generation’ by Ian Perks

The character I play (Tommy Hardaker) is an old soldier desperate to return to Normandy for the 50th Anniversary of D-Day.  My connections to the military are, at best, tenuous.  My Grandfather was unfit for military service in World War 1 because he had been in a sanatorium suffering from T.B. and had a weak chest.  My father volunteered in 1939 but was rejected because of poor eyesight (he fell over the furniture in the assessment room).  The army did not want a soldier who was unable to distinguish friend from for or indeed locate the end of a rifle.  He did join the Home Guard but his anecdotes of that period tended to the comic rather than the heroic.  I did have an uncle who did National Service in Palestine in 1948 but his Sergeant Major told him that he would never be a soldier as long as he had a fully functioning digestive system (expressed rather more colourfully).  So NO family history then.

When I started work all my colleagues were ex-servicemen. Indeed, two had been on the beach on D-day, and I never lost my respect for the dogged courage of ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances; definitely some connection with Tommy there.  I hope we manage to convey some of the qualities of that heroic generation in our production in February.

Ian Perks

P.S. I was in the Boys’ Brigade so I did learn how to march!

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.

Director’s preview – Le Grand Return

On the 5th June 2014, Bernard Jordan, a former naval officer, absconded from his care home in Hove to attend the 70th Anniversary of D-Day commemorations in France with fellow veterans.  His cross channel expedition in his 90th year drew world media attention and became the inspiration for Alan Stockdill’s Le Grand Return. Asked why he travelled to Normandy, Mr. Jordan said: “My thoughts were with my mates who had been killed.  I was going across to pay my respects.  I was a bit off course but I got there.” 

This spirit of warm hearted adventurism permeates the play and we follow Tommy Hardaker and his fellow ‘inmates’ Alf Hegginbottom and Edwin Cooper in their shuffling Great Escape from dreaming and planning through to saluting the fallen in Normandy.

Alan Stockdill has a gift for both comedy and poignancy and takes us on a journey from laughter to tears in a heartfelt look at the impact that WW2 had on a generation.  Rehearsals have been fun, with a fabulous cast that the piece could have been written for, but all of us approach the final scene with a lump in our throats.

We hope that you will take the opportunity to cheer the boys on with their Grand Return.  Playing dates 1st to 8th February 2020. 

Verity Mann, Director

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.

‘84 Charing Cross Road’ by Helene Hanff – opening night review by Martin Paul Roche

Tracey Rontree plays Helene Hanff and Simon Wood plays Frank Doel.

If I was to tell you that the current play from Saddleworth Players is about two people writing letters to each other, you might be inclined to be a tad uninspired at the prospect – but think again.

Definitely think again.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is so much more and it has taken the skill of Melvyn Bates as Director and his talented cast to bring this novel-turned-play-turned-film to life … and more besides.

The play begins in 1949 and then captures 20 years of correspondence between struggling New York playwright Helene Hanff (played by Tracey Rontree) and London antiquarian shop owner Frank Doel (Simon Wood). Her love and pursuit of books and desire to construct a collection which satisfies her appetite for all things literary, causes her to pursue a transatlantic association with her favourite bookstore. And the play explores how kindred spirits can be the basis for the most enduring of relationships; across the miles, their business relationship becomes far more complex, intricate and fascinating to observe unfolding. Mutual respect for their shared passions provides us with a window on two different worlds and lives which unfold before us in intimate and innocent detail. It is a charming piece which the company do justice to and more besides.

Melvyn Bates’ attention to minutia and understanding of the work ensures that the piece has good pace, entertains and constantly engages.

As ever, Saddleworth and their attention to physical details is faultless, from the set to the wardrobe, from the super staging to the mind-boggling volume of props’ – and not forgetting that fascinating play list of tracks which is interpolated throughout and contextualises the era we travel through. This is a piece which depends on detail and the company are clearly equal to the challenges it creates.

Tracey Rontree is the binding for this theatrical memoir, and she is faultless in her delivery. She adds interest and colour to all that she does and paints mental imagery for us to share in as she verbalises her letters to America: personal, intimate, heart-warming, she is the Queen of Detail who commands the role and the moment.

The supporting cast of Verity Mann, Laura Rothwell, Keith Begley, Colin Watt, Patricia Redshaw and Chloe Whatmough are used intelligently within the unfolding narrative and deftly provide much needed character, variety and interest to what could have been a very dry piece of theatre in the wrong hands, with the wrong cast.

But the last word must be for Simon Wood in the role of Frank Doel. Due to changes in cast beyond their control, he stepped in with three weeks to go and pulled this difficult and demanding role off from scratch. He commands (and demands) my utmost respect for all that he has achieved. A sensitive and considered performance under challenging circumstances, it was a big ask and he rose to the challenge.

Another memorable and quality production from Saddleworth Players, it plays until the 30th November and is well-worth the ticket.

Martin Paul Roche

www.martinpaulroche.com

23 November 2019

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.

Photographs courtesy of Stuart Coleman: www.ttfphotography.co.uk

Interview with Laura Rothwell, who plays Cecily Farr in 84 Charing Cross Road

Laura Rothwell plays Cecily Farr in 84 Charing Cross Road

Tell us about the character you play / your role in 84 Charing Cross Road?

I play Cecily Farr – one of the ladies working in the book store in London. She seems to be quite a shy timid character so I’m trying to bring a bit of flare to her personality.

What is your most memorable scene?

For me, I like the scene where Cecily plucks up the courage to write to Helene on her own, despite that in those days it wouldn’t be proper, and how she worries what her boss will think. It’s the start of a bit of independence for Cecily.

What’s involved in rehearsing / preparing for the play?

I have been talking to myself a lot to help learn my lines! I’ve done a lot of practicing of my movements in the living room at home, using furniture for my props…!

Is this your first cast / crew role at the Millgate?

This is my first performance at Millgate, yes.

What do you like about the Millgate Arts Centre?

What a hidden gem it is! You don’t expect it to be there at all above the library, and then when you arrive you don’t expect it to be the size or the standard that it is!

Laura Rothwell plays Cecily Farr in 84 Charing Cross Road at the Millgate Arts Centre from 23 – 30 November.

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.

Stage managing, building sets and becoming greyer!

Colin Watt plays William Humphries in 84 Charing Cross Road.

Since my last blog I have been involved with a number of shows with Saddleworth Players, helping Keith build sets, and even being allowed to build one myself, oh the pressure.

In 84 Charing Cross Road I play the part of William Humphries, and note that at one point my hair has to become greyer (that will need some doing), as well as stage managing and helping to build the set, which has been interesting.  Our director has requested things like a “Bay Window” and even a set of “Library Steps”, that has kept me occupied for a couple of days.

Recently, I have also played Joe Helliwell in the play “When We Are married” with Uppermill Stage society, and just finished “We’ll Meet Again” with my own charity group “Entertaining Friends” at Saddleworth Museum”.

Colin Watt

‘84 Charing Cross Road’ will be performed by the Saddleworth Players at the Millgate Arts Centre from 23 – 30 November. 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.

Playing Helene – quirky, charming, a little eccentric and feisty!

Tracey Rontree plays Helene Hanff in 84 Charing Cross Road

Hi

I’m Tracey Rontree and I’m playing Helene Hanff, the author of the book 84 Charing Cross Road. Just a small part then … not!

This is my 3rd play with Saddleworth Players and it is a great honour to be invited back to play this mammoth part. Helene is a dream to play. She’s quirky, charming, endearing, a little eccentric and feisty. She falls in love with the bookshop, Marks & Company, address 84 Charing Cross Road and clearly has a soft spot for Frank Doel, an antiquarian bookseller working in the shop. She lives for the day when she can visit the shop in London and finally meet Frank, even though, in her own words … ‘She writes them the most outrageous letters from a safe 3000 miles away’.

Helene is also a challenging part. Not only is she a non-fictional character, meaning the actress has to be true to her, she’s also American, born in Philadelphia and living in New York … and there’s me with the broadest English northern accent you’ve ever heard … and we don’t have the luxury of a dialect coach in amateur theatre world. In fact, a liking for gin is the only common denominator that Helene and I have. However, I can promise you that I’m up for the challenge and I’m working very hard to bring you Helene Hanff as true to life as possible.

So, opening night is fast approaching and the nerves have started to kick in. I can already feel those butterflies hatching and crazily flying around in my stomach. It’s over a year since I last performed but I can vividly remember those feelings on opening night … stood in the wings waiting for that first entrance and the thought that enters my head: “Why do I do this? I’m petrified!” Then you enter, deliver your first speech and you’re there … all the time you’ve dedicated to bringing that character to life starts to pay off and you’re suddenly performing to an appreciative audience. Then, I remember why I do it … I love it … and if those nerves ever disappear, I know it will be time to hang up my theatre masks.

Why not kick start your Christmas celebrations with a pre-Christmas treat and come along to see how this transatlantic love affair develops and ends. I always get lots of support from family and friends but it would be great to see some new faces in that appreciative audience.

See you in the bar afterwards where I’ll be raising a glass of gin in honour of Helene Hanff.

Tracey Rontree

‘84 Charing Cross Road’ will be performed by the Saddleworth Players at the Millgate Arts Centre from 23 – 30 November. 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.

‘84 Charing Cross Road’, Director’s preview by Melvyn Bates

Melvyn Bates directs 84 Charing Cross Road at the Millgate Arts Centre

‘84 Charing Cross Road’ is an entertaining, evocative and moving collection of letters sent by the author Helene Hanff, from her home in New York, to the staff of Marks & Co, an antiquarian bookshop in London. Their correspondence spanned 20 years and resulted in a valued friendship. The play was adapted into a film in 1987 and starred Ann Bancroft and Antony Hopkins.

Our cast includes: Tracey Rontree as Helene Hanff, who was last seen at the Millgate Arts Centre in the production of ‘The Cracked Pot’. Playing the part of Frank Doel, the chief buyer for Marks & Co. is Simon Wood. Making up the rest of the cast are: Patricia Renshaw, Angela Bryan, Ruth Wild, Colin Watts and Sam Rowlands.

Do come along to the Millgate Arts Centre in November, when we turn our stage into a New York apartment and a second hand bookshop. I think that our team of set builders will have fun and hard work during November.

Thank you,

Melvyn Bates, Director of ‘84 Charing Cross Road’

‘84 Charing Cross Road’ will be performed by the Saddleworth Players at the Millgate Arts Centre from 23 – 30 November. Tickets are 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.

WHY YOU NEED TO SEE THE SILENCE OF SNOW: THE LIFE OF PATRICK HAMILTON ON NOVEMBER 1ST

Mark Farrelly plays Patrick Hamilton in The Silence of Snow

When I performed my solo play Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope at Millgate Arts Centre last autumn, I immediately knew it was a venue I’d come back to. It’s a beautiful space, with an intimacy perfect for solo work. Tim and Michael are wonderfully supportive, and best of all the audience is engaged, enthusiastic and lively. My kind of place.

I’m returning on Friday 1st November with my solo play The Silence of Snow: The Life of Patrick Hamilton. By the age of 25, Hamilton (1904 – 1962) was an internationally famous playwright thanks to his gripping thriller Rope (filmed by Hitchcock), and a critical success with novels like The Midnight Bell, his deeply touching saga about lives of quiet desperation in Soho publand. He went on to write many other hits, including the play Gaslight, which gives us the term ‘gaslighting’, meaning to twist another person’s sense of reality.

But underneath his tailored veneer, Hamilton was lugging around more unprocessed baggage than Heathrow. His childhood (egomaniac father, smothering mother) had dealt him hugely conflicting messages about love, and like many humans he’d struggled into adulthood with no great affection for himself. This set the scene for a life of emotional chaos, with Hamilton time and again pursuing women who could not return his love, including a Soho prostitute, and two wives who ‘shared’ his life simultaneously.

Of course, it was always doomed because Hamilton did not love himself, and chose booze (“the neurotics’ microscope” he called it) to blot out this truth. Hamilton’s fiction (the riveting Hangover Square, he immensely moving Slaves of Solitude) is often veiled autobiography, and underneath the humour and dazzling verbal pyrotechnics, one senses a man desperately trying to understand himself before some final cataclysm strikes.

I’ve come to love Patrick. This performance will be the 77th, and to deliver such a torrent of great words (many of them Patrick’s own) is a joy for an actor. My director Linda Marlowe also helped me to create a restless, physically demanding piece of theatre. No sitting in a chair gently reminiscing about the past! This is a life acted out in the present tense.

Patrick’s talent blazed for only about fifteen years, but sometimes our minor literary figures have important things to teach us. This is what inspired me to have Patrick confide to the audience near the end of the play: “The great problem with life is that you can get from one end of it to the other without ever feeling that another human being ever truly knew you”.

Now here’s the clincher, and why I want you to be there on November 1st. Yes, it’s a vibrant piece of theatre with incredible reviews (**** from The Times, The Spectator, What’s On Stage and many, many others), but the play also raises money for MIND, the mental health charity. I’m sure you know someone who struggles with mental health, maybe you do yourself. I’ve lost three friends to suicide. The play is dedicated to one of them, Tim Welling. He took his life not long after kindly reading a first draft of my play. It was a tragedy that makes me burn with passionate determination to know myself, and everyone in my life, with every fathom of depth possible. The Silence of Snow encourages you to do exactly the same, by depicting the thrilling, funny, tragic story of a man who could not. I know Tim’s spirit will be somewhere in the beautiful Millgate Arts Centre on November 1st. I hope you will be too. Let’s share something together – and shine a light of hope for mental health.

Mark Farrelly

The Silence of Snow will be performed at the Millgate Arts Centre on Friday 1 November 2019. Tickets from Ticketsource.