Walking the Chains
A play to celebrate the 150th birthday of Clifton Suspension Bridge
Performed at The Passenger Shed, Temple Meads Station, Bristol, from Sunday 11 to Sunday 25 January 2015
The trustees of the bridge commissioned me to write a show in a researched documentary style, similar to Up The Feeder. It was produced independently. The first producer on board was Sarah Smith (no relation), who was executive director of Bristol Old Vic when Up The Feeder was produced, and later, by now independent, was producer of my play The Redcliffe Hermit. To ease the burden on her, we took on Maurice Perl as business manager. An experienced businessman, Maurice had enjoyed some theatre work when he was young. He had just retired, and I figured that he needed something to fill his days. It filled his nights, too. He became much more than a business manager. It is hard to imagine how we could have got the show on without him. It's also hard to imagine how established theatre companies get by without a business head like his. Since the show was done, to 85% capacity audiences (including 1000 schoolchildren at two free matinées), the city has been full of theatre people asking me, 'Who is Maurice Perl?'
As director, Robin Belfield was the choice, not only because of his work in this kind of theatre, and at the National, but also because, when a drama student at Bristol University, while getting a first he had also found the time to be one of the 35 extras in Up The Feeder, unloading bananas and singing at the same time. He knew the stuff I write. He also knows how, tactfully, to drive me through draft after draft. I like to think I can get the words right. I need help with knocking them into dramatic shape. Most playwrights do. It's called teamwork, and is the joy of working in theatre. I had knocking guidance too from Tom Stoppard, another old friend.
Sheila Hannon was the creative producer. She brought in James Helps as designer; he worked so many socks off that he was in effect the production manager as well. Liz Purnell joined us as music director and sound designer, and played her trombone in an musical ensemble of nine, six of whom were also acting. (Casting them was reminiscent of the story about Frank Benson, the cricket-loving director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries; he is supposed to have wired his agent in London, Find me a slow left-arm bowler who can play Hamlet.)
To represent on stage the audacity of Brunel's design, circus acrobats fitted the bill, just as, in his famous production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Peter Brook had imported tricks from the Chinese circus to enact magic. Paul Rummer, principal of the BOV Theatre School, gave us circus contacts; Sarah Smith followed through by arranging a talk with Circomedia, where Bim Mason signed up with us. We had an enjoyable and fruitful development week working with some of his performers. Francis Greenacre was our liaison with the bridge trustees, and, as a former curator of the City Art Gallery, did much for our visual presentation. Our publicity was handled by Farrows Creative. Alan Rees and Vic Ecclestone came in to handle educational outreach, running classes not just in theatre practice but also in engineering. The country needs engineers.
We had a team. What about a venue? Maurice Perl negotiated a deal with the Passenger Shed. It is spacious enough to accommodate the circus acts and their structures, and it is a Brunel building. We built in an auditorium seating 500.
How were we going to pay for it all? If we had no source of income but ticket sales we would need to sell every seat and charge around £30 each. That is what subsidy and sponsorship mean to theatre: it is to make a show affordable for the audience. With Katie Keeler, of Theatre Bristol, Maurice slaved over an application for Arts Council support that was warmly approved, and it was Maurice's commercial head, in collaboration with Francis, Alastair Currie and Trevor Smallwood, which sweet-talked business sponsors and donors into backing us.
Meanwhile, I was researching and writing and rewriting. In the historical stuff I had the indispensable input of Adrian Andrews, who would score 20/20 on Mastermind with the bridge as his special subject. But, from the start, I had envisaged intertwining the history with what the bridge has meant to Bristol, and visitors, since it was opened 150 years ago. To get at that, I did what I had done on Up The Feeder, listen to what the people who work there feel about it. The Bridgemaster and some members of his maintenance crew and tollbooth keepers allowed me to record hours of conversation with them, which I edited into script form with the help of Victoria Cook. After that, I put the word out on Radio Bristol and the Post that we would like to hear stories from Bristolians about the bridge, and several of them were told on our stage. A theatre needs to "be like yoghourt, taking on the local flavour," to quote Brook again.
"The poet's pen gives to airy nothing / A local habitation, and a name" (A Midsummer Night's Dream). Our sense of ourselves as a community, caring about each other and about the local habitation we share, is most lively when we are addressed by a speaking voice. Like no other art, theatre can bind us, the audience, together for the hour or two the performance lasts. It concentrates our minds on the here and the now and the us. It does so by telling us a story. The story might not be obviously about us, it might be about a Victorian bridge, but it leaves us aware of what we have in common, the things we take for granted, for all our different interests when we are on our way home again. That has been the key to successful and popular theatre in Stoke, East London, Liverpool, Hull, Glasgow, Ipswich, and now and then in Bristol.
Reviews & other press & media cover
Lyn Gardner in The Guardian:
4 Stars from The Stage:
4 Stars from Bristol Evening Post:
4 Stars from StageTalk Magazine:
Claire Sully's blog after seeing the Preview:
BBC Points West Preview:
Preview Made In Bristol TV:
Download the entire script here (songs are in red).
Walking the Chains: Cast Recordings on Soundcloud
Photography by Farrows Creative LLP