Le Grand Return – Director’s Notes

The cast of Le Grand Return

It’s 1994 and the 50th Anniversary of the D-Day landings looms.  Tommy, Alf and Edwin are incarcerated in Coldrick Nursing Home.  In spite of his ever worsening heart condition, D-Day veteran, Tommy, is determined to break out and rejoin his old comrades on the Normandy Beaches and salute the fallen. The friends conspire to escape and, in action that takes them from dining room to Belgian port, to French village and cemetery, they chat, they reminisce, they tease and support each other in this heart-warming tale.

I first came across this play when it was performed by a stellar cast at the Top Room of the Swan in Dobcross.  Alan Stockdill, the playwright, has a genius for warmhearted, humorous characters, pared down settings and stories that will both entertain you and leave you with a lump in your throat. 

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.

Tommy, Alf and Edwin concoct a ‘great escape’

Alayne Whitworth plays the part of Yvette

This is my third play since joining the Saddleworth Players back in December 2017 and is certainly the most moving and heart-warming so far.

Tommy, Alf and Edwin concoct a ‘great escape’ from their Nursing Home in the hope of travelling to Normandy to attend the 50th Anniversary   D-Day Commemorations and of finding George Penney’s grave. I don’t want to give too much away about the characters I play, other than to say, there are 3 of them and they’re all very different, although Alf does see some similarities! 

The premise of Le Grand Return, a mix of laughter, tears and tales of bravery, has evoked in me, thoughts of a time in our history that was so  terribly shocking, disturbing and utterly heartbreaking for so many people, not only in this country but across the World. It made me think about my dear Grandad who played his part in World War II but, as far as I can remember, never really spoke about it, and my Nanna who lost her beloved twin Brother Andy (W/Sgt Andrew Straiton). I sadly never got to meet him because he died in a Prisoner of War Camp in Italy. He was just 24 years old.              

I hope you all enjoy this wonderful play and I also hope it will re-ignite in you the many reasons why we should NEVER FORGET the sacrifices ordinary men and women made to keep our Country free.

Alayne Whitworth

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.

This play will make you laugh and will make you cry

John Tanner plays the Edwin Cooper in Le Grand Return

My name is John Tanner and I am playing the part of Edwin Cooper in the forthcoming Saddleworth Players’ production of ‘Le Grand Return’ at the Millgate Arts Centre. 

During the 2nd World War Edwin was Captain of the Pays Corps, a vital role (paying out wages) but frustrated not to have been a ‘Fighting’ Soldier particularly as he shows a real flare for foreign languages as you will witness during the play!!

This play will make you laugh and will make you cry but it is a poignant reminder of the struggles, hardships and loss of comrades and loved ones to all those who have experienced wartime.

In the play there is a reference to Edwin’s Father being gassed at Ypres during the 1st World War which connects to my own Grandfather, Gilbert Tanner who was at that time a Major in the 7th battalion (West Riding Division of the Duke of Wellingtons). He fought at the battle of Poelcapelle, the 3rdbattle of Ypres in 1917 and was awarded the DSO for his actions in the Battle of Valenciennes fighting alongside Canadian forces at the beginning of November 1918, finally rising to the rank of Colonel.

My Father fought in the 2nd World War and was in both the North African and Italian campaigns serving as Captain in the Territorials.

As I was too young to have been called up for National Service (and obviously too young to be cast in this play !!!!) my only experience of Military Life was in the School CCF – and to escape boring drill I joined the School Military Band which sported a much more colourful uniform – However I couldn’t play an instrument so I was given the task of playing the tenor drum. I never did quite master hitting the drum and marching in time together with disastrous results during a rendition of ‘Hello Dolly’ around the athletics track in front of an amused audience and not so amused parents!

John Tanner

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.

My Father’s Story D-Day story, by Ray Withnall

Joe Withnall

My father, Joe, was 14 years old when the Second World War began. For the first few months nothing seemed to be happening and, along with his friends, he thought it was going to be a great adventure. Then his neighbour returned from Dunkirk, a shadow of the man he was just six months before. Fears were raised that the Germans would invade Britain but the heroes of the Battle of Britain saved the day, but this was quickly followed by the Blitz bombings and he then realised the seriousness of war. My father joined the Home Guard and even though some of the antics were exactly like Dad’s Army, he learnt about discipline, manoeuvres and comradeship.

On his 18th birthday he joined the Tyneside Scottish Black Watch at Perth barracks and began a course of infantry training that was to last eighteen months. He travelled up and the country training for beach landings, the use of a bren gun, driving, survival, combat tactics, physical training and anything and everything else  the army could think of. It was obvious they were training for something specific but it was only in the spring of 1944 when the rumours began to circulate. His battalion arrived in Thetford and by May they were on stand-by.  The D Day Landings started on 6 June and they were moved to Newhaven ready to depart on 12 June as a support unit. The sea was calm as they crossed to Normandy, but Joe’s nerves made his stomach churn. They arrived on Gold beach and were put on ‘stand by’ ready to move at one hour’s notice to wherever they were needed. This was the first time the men were facing the enemy and most of them were just 19 years old.

Joe in uniform

Eventually they moved inland towards Tilly-sur-Seulles and on 1 July engaged in the battle of Rauray. Following the victory the surviving Tyneside Scottish infantry soldiers were transferred to the 51st Highland Division Black Watch. My father was assigned to the 154 Brigade and moved to liberate Le Havre. The Normandy Campaign ended in August 1944 and the men moved to Belgium.  In January 1945 my father’s Brigade were called upon to assist the Americans in the Battle of the Bulge. He spent his 20th birthday in a snowdrift where he suffered frost bite. Following victory over the Germans at La Roche, he moved north to Holland and joined the Canadians close to the river Rhine in the Reichswald forest area. They advanced towards the Rhine forcing the Germans to retreat. Following this success they began to prepare to cross the Rhine for a final advance into Germany.

On the 23 March 1945 at precisely 9pm in the evening, my father and his Brigade were amongst the first men to cross the Rhine. He was lucky survive as his Buffalo Landing Craft almost toppled over into the river where the Germans had undercut the river bank. The operation was a complete success and opened the way to advance into Germany and force Hitler into defeat. My father was in Bremerhaven when the Germans surrendered. Following reparations he returned home and like many of the heroes of his generation quietly went about rebuilding his life. 

After he retired, my father became an enthusiastic member of the British Legion and Stockport Normandy Veterans Association. He returned to Normandy with my mother over 25 times to pay his respects to those who did not return. I had the honour to go with them a few times and became acutely aware of bravery he and all the others gave to his country. He was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur in 2015 but sadly died two years later at the grand age of 92.

Ray Withnall

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.

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.