Adapting A Passage to India

Passage to India smallerOne of the great novels of the 20th century, A Passage To India will be brought to life on stage in a new adaptation by award-winning ensemble simple8 at Salisbury Playhouse from 22 to 27 January 2018. Taking EM Forster’s novel and re-imagining it for contemporary Britain, this new stage production will conjure up Imperial India, the elephants and caves, courthouses and temples with the simplest and boldest of means.

A Passage To India is adapted and co-directed by Simon Dormandy, whose recent directing work includes co-directing his own adaptation of Coen Brothers’ film The Hudsucker Proxy at Liverpool Playhouse, and directing Julius Caesar at Bristol Old Vic. Simon was also Director of Drama at Eton College for 15 years, where his students included Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston, as well as the co-director of A Passage to India Sebastian Armesto.

Do you think A Passage to India is still relevant today, over 90 years after it was written?

“Absolutely. The question which drives the story – how can we love one another in a world divided by culture and belief – is every bit as urgent in Britain today as it was when Forster first framed it. The world may have become a smaller place in the last hundred years, but it is no less divided than the India of Forster’s novel.  A Passage to India is a story for our times.”

When approaching this adaptation, did you have a certain idea of what the British Raj must have been like?

“My father spent his pre-school years in British India, and I was brought up to believe that, however much we might question colonialism as a policy, the behaviour of the British themselves was generally benign. And the essential decency of the British was something I found very hard to unthink, partly out of love for my family, partly from the romantic way the Raj is generally presented in fiction and film, and partly from direct experience of India, where I spent nine months backpacking in the Seventies.

“So when, at the end of my gap-year, I finally got around to reading A Passage to India, I was devastated. Its portrait of the Anglo-Indians (as Forster calls the colonial British, using the meaning current at the time) was utterly convincing and absolutely damning, not because they are individually malicious, but because the structure and ultimate purpose of colonialism forces them as a group, regardless of their personal qualities, to deny the common humanity they share with the Indians so that, when there is a crisis, they behave atrociously.”

Simon Dormandy (left) backpacking in India in the 1970s

Simon Dormandy (left) backpacking in India in the 1970s

What can audiences expect from this production?

“They can expect a simple, moving story about people overcoming terrible obstacles in search of love.  They can expect scenes and characters of exquisite delicacy – Forster’s dialogue matches the very best ever written for a stage.  They can expect thrilling and dynamic sequences of action and imagination – the conjuring of beautiful settings and terrifying experiences from the simplest of ingredients.  And they can expect comedy, tragedy and rich humanity at every turn.

We have chosen a minimalist design style, using appropriate costumes on a simple set, but dispensing with accessories, props and scene-dressing in order to focus on character and relationships, not period and milieu.  By inviting the audience to flesh out our hints with their imaginations in this way, we hope to draw them deeper into the drama, implicating them in something that might all too easily feel like a tale of long ago and far away.”

A Passage to India runs at Salisbury Playhouse from Monday 22 to Saturday 27 January. For more information and tickets, visit or call 01722 320333.



In the rehearsal room with Jack and the Beanstalk

Sam Harrison plays Jack Trott in this year’s pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk. He’s been in rehearsal with the rest of the cast for two weeks and tells us what’s been going on in the rehearsal room.

JACK cast 6 copy

The biggest issue when rehearsing panto is the filth. I’m not talking the traditional slop scene where everyone gets covered in goo. I’m talking about reigning in a cast of comics who want to get the biggest laughs.

We are at the end of week two rehearsing Jack and the Beanstalk and our director Ryan has created a very happy rehearsal room, but the phrase we hear most often is “you can’t say that”. For reasons of propriety I can’t repeat anything here, but rest assured young ears have been protected from all sorts of puns involving joy sticks, udders and …

That isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of sauciness and hilarity that makes its way through the censors. Half the time there’s only one person acting in a scene, whilst everyone else just tries not to laugh. In fact, rehearsing a panto is different from any other kind of rehearsal process. Conversations include:

“Do you want me on the cloud stage right or stage left?”

“That won’t work, my wig/udders/dress is enormous.”

“Can you make that bean pod look heavier?”

“Right guys, let’s take it from ‘Lady Gaga’ going into the Charleston.”

“I can see your hand up the chicken’s bum.”

Because of course comedy is a deadly serious business. Very often you can see people in corners looking like they’re thrashing out the next Brexit negotiation, only to discover they’re saying:

“So  if I look away and THEN you hit me, I can fall into HER so she has a reason to say the next line.”

“Yes but if you could then bounce BACK that would be really useful so we can get a clear path for HIS next entrance.”

“Perfect. Do we have  a sound effect for that?”

[It plays]

“Uh-huh, uh-huh, yes, I love the BOING but can we get more of a THWACK beforehand?”

Halfway through our rehearsals a lot is still up for grabs, smut will be bouncing around the rehearsal room until just the right tone is set and we are yet to get into costume or find our way around the stage. All that is to come, but what I do know is that we have a marvellously talented bunch who are having a ball creating a pretty special panto.

It’s certainly better than my last job. I used to work in a butcher’s tying sausages together, but I couldn’t make ends meet.

Jack and the Beanstalk opens on Saturday 2 December and runs to Sunday 7 January. For tickets visit or call 01722 320333.

Rosemary Leach 1935-2017

Arthur Millie, Salisbury Playhouse Archivist, remembers Rosemary Leach whose death was announced at the end of October. Rosemary starred in the premiere of 84 Charing Cross Road here in 1981.

Rosemary LeachLaurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie was a story that Roger Clissold had wanted to produce at the Playhouse for some time but the rights had been withdrawn by the author since its West End showing in the 1960s as he was not happy with the reception. Eventually, in 1981, he gave Roger permission to produce it as he had “a special sympathy with Gloucester because of his close connections with Stroud and I am sure he will present the play sensitively”.

Roger approached James Roose Evans who had written the adaptation and it led to a happy double. Roger mentioned that there was also a piece that he himself wanted to adapt called 84 Charing Cross Road. But Roose Evans rejoined: “You can’t – I’ve already got the rights!” So Roger came back with, “OK, you do it at the Playhouse then!”

Thus one of the most successful plays ever to appear at the Playhouse was performed in the summer of 1981 telling the story of the correspondence between Helene Hanff, a rather eccentric and feisty bibliophile and Frank Doel, the owner of an antiquarian bookshop in Charing Cross. David Swift was to play Frank Doel and that much loved actress Rosemary Leach was to play Helene Hanff.

Rosemary was born in Much Wenlock in Shropshire, the second daughter of a headteacher who ran the village school in Diddlebury near Ludlow. Amongst her early memories were going to the pantomimes and seeing Val Doonican when he was one of the Four Ramblers.

She was educated at Oswestry Girls High School where she excelled in the school plays. Her aim was to go to art school but she spent some time selling shoes in the Reading branch of John Lewis. However, one day her sister brought home a magazine that contained an article about RADA. She decided to apply and after an uneasy audition was accepted for the 1953 year. She says that she was deeply unhappy there as she “seemed not to learn anything” but she persevered, as she was concerned that her parents were paying the fees.

Her report once said: “She has a good temperament but no technique.” But, after a spell working with Caryl Jenner’s mobile theatre for children, Rosemary said: “After working off the back of a lorry and moving around all the time I suddenly learnt how to do it.”

After many successful stage appearances for a while she became what she described as: “a permanent member of the television rep” and she longed to get back to the theatre – “Charing Cross happened and suddenly I was taken seriously again.”

The role of Helene Hanff was tailor made for her exceptional talents and the production eventually transferred to the West End and she deservedly won the Olivier Award for the Best Actress in a New Play for the 1982 Season.

She was showered with praise. The Telegraph wrote: “Her performance was at once warm and witty in its mixture of romantic affection for Britain and what she can devour from books.”

The local Journal wrote: “It was brilliantly performed by that superb character actor, Rosemary Leach.” And the Financial Times simply said: “Rosemary Leach’s performance is magnificent.”

Sadly Rosemary Leach died in October. In his Guardian obituary, Michael Coveney wrote that, in an interview, Rosemary had once said that she had never been invited to appear with either the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I’m as good as Judi Dench. I’m sure I am,” she said.

Salisbury Playhouse theatregoers who saw her performance in 84 Charing Cross Road will readily agree with her and consider Rosemary Leach to be the equal of any theatrical Dame.

Adapting Blown Away for the stage

Metta Theatre artistic director Poppy Burton-Morgan talks about adapting Rob Biddulph’s book Blown Away for the stage.

Like many parents reading that same bedtime story for the sixth time in a row, my mind occasionally wanders and, being a theatre-maker, it often wanders into theatre-making territory. Of course it’s hard to ever get bored of Rob Biddulph’s gorgeous work but it’s ever so easy to slip into a parallel world where the characters come into all singing, all dancing acrobatic life! Which is exactly what happened two years ago when I first read Blown Away to my two little boys.

Balance pole2So, with Rob’s blessing, we began to explore how to adapt the piece for the stage. The playful, sing-song verse of the original cries out to be sung so filling the show with songs was an obvious first step. But when you look further at the lovely illustrations you’ll notice (if you’re of a circus-y persuasion) that Rob has already drawn many of the characters in acrobatic positions – notably two-highs and three-highs (when performers stand on each other’s shoulders – a frequent physical trope of the show).

At a deeper level, the use of circus also lets us dig into some of the deeper themes of the story – trust and a friendship that is borne out of sharing a physical adventure together. Circus is always a great art form to make manifest themes of trust – it literally cannot exist without it. There is no greater pleasure than being close enough to the action to see the trust in the performer’s eyes as they throw and catch each other with grace and ease.

Thus far we had been very faithful to this relatively simple tale of friendship and adventure – even maintaining the aesthetic of the slightly ‘bobbly’ illustration through knitted costumes, props and puppets (which add a satisfying sense of the Antarctic temperatures). But being a Metta show (there are always multiple layers of storytelling) we wanted to take the characters further in terms of their backstories and their emotional as well as physical journeys. Puppet Stack

So we took a little artistic license and developed the characters further – so Penguin Blue became a penguin who had always wanted to fly (something real Penguins cannot do) but instead had spent her life following ‘colony rules’ and keeping her feet on the ground. Meanwhile Wilma (Wilbur in the original – always up for a bit of gender parity in casting) became an over-anxious seal, keen to travel, but afraid to leave the familiar surroundings of her ice hole, and Clive the polar bear just wants a friend – it’s lonely being a polar bear, especially if you try to eat your friends.

Now here we are two years later and the show is finished and ready to take flight – the props are knitted, the harmonies polished and the circus tricks drilled into the performers’ bodies. Join us for the ride… it’s a lot of fun.

Blown Away is in The Salberg on Friday 27 October at 12pm and 2pm. For more information or tickets call 01722 320333 or visit


The making of Great Odds

It’s all about the stories for theatre maker Esther McAuley – creating another world that relates to the every day, but with a difference.

Esther’s first play, Great Odds, is a story for six to 11-year-olds about how to follow a dream in a world where that can feel impossible. A collaboration with d/Deaf* and hearing actors that integrates puppetry, visual storytelling, drama, music and sound with British Sign Language (BSL), it has been co-produced with Lighthouse Poole’s centre for the arts, where it opens a UK tour on 18 October.

“I want to make accessible theatre that has something to say in a bold and entertaining way,” explains Esther, who was inspired to learn BSL after being in a play directed by Jenny Sealey MBE, artistic director at Graeae Theatre Company.

“It just blew everything I knew about theatre out of the water and made me want to set off in a new direction.”

Esther also works as a BSL Communication Support Worker and last year formed her own company Mac’s Arcadian in order to produce the kind of theatre she wants to make. Great Odds was developed in R&D sessions at the Unicorn Theatre with support from Improbable in London via workshops and informal sharings to tiny invited audiences.

“That process was invaluable as I was able to get some really interesting feedback and act on it. The piece looks at what it means to have a dream in a place where dreams are not necessarily encouraged.”

The story follows three people – Marco who communicates with speech and sign language, Grouch who uses British Sign Language and Jewels, a musician, who communicates through music and mime.

Charlotte Arrowsmith rehearsing for Great Odds.jpg

Charlotte Arrowsmith rehearsing for Great Odds

When their landlord The Big Boss hikes up the rent for the theatre that is their livelihood, the three set out to create a sell-out show that will save the day. Working with the audience they conjure a story about a puppet who sets out to follow a dream that escaped from its ear at night, but before they can finish, The Big Boss tells them she has had a much better offer from a supermarket chain and they must leave immediately.

“The puppet communicates with light,” says Esther. “The Big Boss is pre-filmed and is projected, so the play is about how these different types of communication are used to create a new world and tell the story.”

Central to the production is that nobody’s ability or disability is named or labelled or discussed, although that decision almost inevitably becomes a point of discussion around the play.

“Well, up to a point,” says Esther. We will be working with two sign language interpreters through rehearsals and there’s a short, very basic Deaf Awareness session for everyone at the start.”

Great Odds has been made possible with funding from Arts Council England, but company members have been applying to the Access To Work employment support scheme to fund some of the interpreter costs that make sufficient access possible for d/Deaf company members.

“The irony is that we have had to jump through all sorts of hoops and the process is slow and it’s far from certain we’ll get the Access to Work funding,” says Esther.

Jim Fish, Sophie Coward, Charlotte Arrowsmith (1)_Fotor.jpg

Jim Fish, Sophie Coward and Charlotte Arrowsmith in rehearsals

The struggle to put on a show is in Esther’s genes – not only are her dad and uncles Irish folk musicians, but her grandparents John and Margaret McAuley founded the original Mac’s Arcadian in west Belfast after the Second World War, taking the name from the local cinema.

“I’m lucky enough to be a bit better off than they were, they had absolutely nothing. My granddad played musical instruments and the spoons and my nan danced and sang – she was singing up until she died in her 90s. The original Mac’s Arcadian was a travelling show and they would tell stories, sing songs, play music and perform vaudeville sketches.

“Sometimes they’d bring other acts in – there’s a story about The Man Who Ran Around Himself, a man who put his head on the floor and literally ran around himself – but it was fundamentally about creative storytelling. So that’s where it all comes from. It seemed obvious to re-found the name and I hope they’d see the link with what I’m doing.”

* d/Deaf is a short-cut term used to describe simultaneously people who are Deaf (sign language users) and deaf (hard of hearing who have English as their first language and may lip read and/or use hearing aids).

Great Odds is in The Salberg on Wednesday 25 October at 2pm and Thursday 26 October at 11am. The Thursday performance is followed by a hands-on puppet workshop at 12.15pm. For more information or tickets contact Ticket Sales on 01722 320333 or visit

Week three of rehearsals for Betrayal

Assistant director Hannah Treadaway writes from behind the scenes of week three of rehearsals for Harold Pinter’s Betrayal.

With A Sublime Feeling performances finished, I joined the Betrayal company on Week 2 of rehearsals last week. Jo Newman (Betrayal’s director) is a brilliant director and the cast are amazing so a week in, it was already in a really incredible place.

Betrayal Rehearsal Salisbury Playhouse

Robert Hands, Kirsty Besterman and Robert Mountford in rehearsals for Betrayal. Photo by Barbara Leatham

Betrayal is a play that unfolds backwards in time so we’ve worked to make sure that in every scene we are grounded in where we are in the characters’ timeline. As part of that process we did a run through of the scenes in chronological order and then after a quick cuppa did a run through with the scenes in the order they happen in the play. It was incredible to see how much of the characters’ journeys were unlocked.

We’ve explored the text and really dug into the detail of the journey Pinter has crafted for Emma, Robert and Jerry; discussing their beliefs and the world they inhabit. Pinter’s words are so precise and he places his pauses and silences really exactly so we’ve worked through the play ensuring we understand what every word, pause and silence means. Every day new discoveries are made and every time I see the play on its feet I get even more excited as the characters’ journeys come more and more alive.

Now coming to the end of Week 3, Betrayal is bursting with life. I’m so excited for tech rehearsals to start next week.

Betrayal runs in the Main House of Salisbury Playhouse from Thursday 7 to Saturday 23 September. For more information or tickets contact Ticket Sales on 01722 320333 or visit

Interview with Betrayal director Jo Newman

Jo Newman is a great example of how new talent can be nurtured in the theatre. Jo joined Salisbury Playhouse on an 18-month Regional Theatre Young Directors Scheme residency in 2015; in September this year she directs a Harold Pinter play on the main stage.

Jo has steadily become an invaluable member of the Salisbury Playhouse team: she was appointed Associate Director following her 18-month residency and has worked on a range of projects since, as she explains, while talking about Betrayal, the production which opens Salisbury Playhouse’s autumn winter season.

Betrayal Rehearsal Salisbury Playhouse

Jo Newman (second from right) talks to the Betrayal cast, from left to right: Kirsty Besterman, Robert Hands and Robert Mountford

When asked to describe her journey at Salisbury Playhouse in three words, Jo says it’s been “immersive, inspiring and life-changing”. She says working at Salisbury Playhouse has been “an invaluable experience, an opportunity to develop my craft as a theatre director, to build experience, being involved in a range of projects”. She’s worked alongside artistic director Gareth Machin on a number of productions and programmes shows for The Salberg.

At Salisbury Playhouse Jo assisted Gareth Machin on Little Shop of Horrors and The Magna Carta Plays. She worked with directors Ria Parry on Bike and with Jess Swale on Fallen Angels; she co-directed Stage 65’s Clause 39 in Salisbury Cathedral and directed This Land, a co-production with Pentabus. She was associate director for Salisbury Playhouse on We’re here because we’re here, the Second World War centenary project. She collected verbatim interviews for the National Theatre’s production My Country, when she travelled around Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset asking people about their experience of living in this country today. Jo has worked with emerging artists, offering dramaturgical support on new commissions and with the planning team on new seasons. She’s worked with the Take Part team doing workshops and managing Theatre Fest West, setting up the Theatre Fest West writers’ prize.

“It’s been so valuable,  assisting exciting directors and working with leading writers and creative teams,” says Jo. “It’s a huge step, directing on the mid-scale and it’s exciting to do that here, at a venue that has been so supportive of my development so far.”

Jo chose Betrayal as the production she would direct, so what makes Betrayal such a great play and why has it remained a classic? “Pinter is an incredible playwright. Like all his plays, Betrayal has poetic qualities to it. Every single line is there for a reason. It’s like a piece of music in some ways. But there’s a lot more back story to this one and it’s more accessible, less oblique than some of his other plays.”

Jo explains that the motif of betrayal running through the play has more than one meaning. “The play explores universal ideas of betrayal, not just in relationships but what happens in the course of a life, how a person can inadvertently end up betraying their own ideals.”

Beyond that, Betrayal explores questions of identity and the role of memory. “There are rigid social structures that keep them from being able to express themselves,” says Jo. “The play is so much about male friendship but for me it’s also interesting to explore what it was like to be a woman at that time [1978 when the play was first performed]. There’s a lot which will resonate with a modern audience, giving us the opportunity to explore what we’ve inherited as a society and where we’ve moved on. It’s also really funny, darkly funny. It’s so precise and what’s thrilling is the way it goes back in time. We meet the characters at the end of their affair and we hear about memories and see those memories play out so it’s about our perception of memory.”

Jo chose the play with an eye on its relevance to today. “In 1978 when it was produced at the National Theatre the curtain nearly didn’t go up on the first night because there were huge union riots and it was leading into the Winter of Discontent. It feels interesting to put this play on now, at such a turbulent time where I think a lot of people feel betrayed by the government. It raises the question of what people feel betrayed by.”

Not surprisingly, Jo can think of any number of reasons why audiences should come and see the play.

“The cast are incredible, really captivating and they have such a great way with Pinter’s language. It’s an exciting opportunity to see one of Pinter’s greatest plays but it’s also really funny and interesting, the way the story unfolds in reverse so you have to piece it together. It’s a brilliant creative team, stunning design and an original soundtrack. It should be a really great night out at the theatre – and it’s not very long!”

What’s been the biggest reward of directing Betrayal? “Just doing it, working with an incredible cast on a stunning play,” says Jo. “Every day we’re discovering something else in rehearsal. It’s such a privilege to work on something that’s so well written and with a company that is so talented and to work at this scale. We’re using lots of fancy things like trap doors; I’ve never worked with shows with big enough budgets for all those tricks before.”

Looking ahead to life after Betrayal, one of Jo’s responsibilities is managing Theatre Fest West, the annual festival of performances from and about the South West run in conjunction with Salisbury Arts Centre, The Pound at Corsham and Trowbridge Arts. How does she select productions to be part of the programme? “It’s hard because there are more projects than there are slots. We look for a range of exciting work that appeals to different audiences from all over the South West, things that would resonate, exciting stories, exciting companies, things that are bold and innovative.”

What should audiences expect from Theatre Fest West in 2018? “There’s lots of work so it’s a great opportunity to try something different. There will be work for all ages, a family programme and a really exciting range of work in the studio. There’s a production taking place in a kitchen. It’s work made in the region that is nationally acclaimed and we’re excited to give it a home here.”

Theatre Fest West will return in February 2018. Betrayal is on in the Main House from Thursday 7 September to Saturday 23 September. For more information and for tickets visit or call Ticket Sales on 01722 320333.

Assistant Director Hannah Treadaway tells us about the first week in rehearsals for Kazzum and Stage 65’s new show

Salisbury Playhouse’s Stage 65 Youth Theatre is devising a piece of theatre in response to an exhibition, British Art: Ancient Landscapes at Salisbury Museum. I am assistant director to Alex Evans from Kazzum on the project, also working alongside Stage 65’s youth theatre director Dave Orme. As the performance will take place outdoors, we’re working between the Salisbury Playhouse rehearsal room and the grounds of the museum, including one slightly soggy rehearsal but the rain can’t dampen our enthusiasm (pun intended)!

Last week rehearsals for A Sublime Feeling kicked off to a great start.

We’ve been building ourselves as a company; playing lots of games and Zip Zap Boing! As the exhibition features heavily on Stonehenge, we’ve discussed what we know, questions we have, how we feel about it, and what we imagine.

The young company has also begun working with sticks. Throwing them, creating rhythms, using them to build shapes and transform into objects to be used in the piece. Storytelling skills have also been developed, and we’ve begun to devise movement.

During the week we did some writing exercises and the young company each wrote a poem in response to a picture. Their words are incredibly powerful and we’re looking forward to bringing them to life on stage.

They also created colourful sacred spaces as well as exploring different ways to create a soundscape using a microphone and different materials such as rice, sand and stones- slightly messy but incredibly effective.

On Friday we shared what we’d been up to with the team at Salisbury Playhouse. The young company performed brilliantly and after we’d cleared up, we finished with silly songs and the Macarena.

The perfect end to a great week.

A Sublime Feeling runs in The Garden of Salisbury Museum, The Close, Salisbury from Thursday 17 to Saturday 19 August 2017. For tickets or more information please contact the Ticket Office on 01722 320333 or visit

Take Part participants take over Salisbury Playhouse

dance six o v2 copy

Resident contemporary dance company Dance Six-0

Salisbury Playhouse is showcasing its Take Part participants this summer with performances from Beginners Please schoolchildren and BTEC students, Stage 65 Tidworth, Mind the Gap and Dance Six-0. Performers of all ages will be treading the boards, from 6 year olds to those in their 80s.

The annual BTEC summer showcase returned with a musical twist. The Play’s the Thing which featured wedding scenes from various plays was presented by 27 BTEC students on Wednesday 14 June in the main house.

Stage 65 Tidworth – the arm of the youth theatre that meets weekly at Wellington Academy in Tidworth – performed on Friday 16 June, also in the main house, with a walk through production on the history of theatre through young people’s eyes.  Expect Greek mask work in the foyer, Shakespearean language in the auditorium and a fairy tale on the main stage.

June sees a massive celebration of Beginners Please, Salisbury Playhouse’s year-round project with primary school pupils.  Over five weeks, nearly 1,000 school children from 19 schools will perform to families and friends. Schools have been working on a huge variety of themes, including ‘Strictly’, rock musicals and traditional tales.

Then, in July, community groups take over The Salberg for a week of fabulous performances:

On Monday 17 July there will be a chance to hear the results of our first Original Drama competition.  Over 50 young people from years 7, 8 and 9 have written new pieces of theatre. Following judging by teachers, directors and writers, the top six will be performed as rehearsed readings.

Our over 50s theatre group Mind the Gap and 16+ Stage 65 Youth Theatre members are collaborating for one night only on Tuesday 18 July. Join them for a theatrical journey exploring the magic, mysticism and memories of our unique local landscape, inspired by Salisbury Museum’s British Art: Ancient Landscapes exhibition.

On Thursday 20 July Salisbury Playhouse’s resident contemporary dance company Dance Six-0 performs in The Salberg.  The group has worked with choreographers from Lila Dance and renowned performer Liz Agiss to create what promises to be a surprising and entertaining evening to challenge perceptions and demonstrate we are never too old to dance.

Finally on Saturday 22 July, Tom Sherman, Performing and Production Arts course leader at Salisbury Playhouse, will be taking to the stage. Tom has himself gone back to school and is undertaking a Master’s degree through Staffordshire University.  For his final project he is staging a production of She Stoops To Conquer, working with Playhouse staff, exploring collaborative and embodied techniques for producing a classical play.

Take Part Programme Manager Louise Dancy said: “It will be a Take Part takeover of Salisbury Playhouse from June to July. This is a celebration of the diversity of the projects that we run.”

Barney Norris on While We’re Here

While We're Here at the Bush Theatre. Photo by Mark Douet  _50A7923.jpg

Tessa Peake-Jones and Andrew French in While We’re Here

Writer Barney Norris says his play While We’re Here is part of an ongoing project to change the way we view society

WHILE WE’RE HERE is the meeting place of several different enquiries my theatre company, Up In Arms, has undertaken over the last few years, lines of thinking that come together in the story of the play.

The Eastleigh by-election to replace Chris Huhne in 2013, which some may remember boiled down to a contest between Ukip and the Lib Dems, made us want to make work about the atomised towns of the south of England where people struggle to come to terms with the low ceilings of suburban life; a southern culture we felt no one was speaking for. We wanted to make work about the way people related to the society around them – the way people run and hide from the world, and how they immerse themselves in it. We wanted to explore the way that people long for meaning in England now.

With support from house, the south-east based venue network, we visited several communities across the south of England, looking for a story to tell. Eventually, we found our way to Havant, a town outside Portsmouth and close to the coast where we felt a new world opening up to us. And as our research in Havant and elsewhere developed, we found ourselves drawn into explorations of fostering in the British Nigerian community in England; into mental health referral processes; into homelessness and hidden homelessness in the U.K. The play became a story about the way we look after the vulnerable in our country, as well as a story about human vulnerability, human weakness, human joy, and the tightrope between laughter and sorrow.

It is the latest play to emerge from an ongoing experiment being conducted by Up In Arms. Since our first full-length play Visitors opened in 2014, we have been engaged in a continuing exploration of what life is like for people in the neck of the woods we hail from.

We make regular visits to the communities where we grew up, and where we feel at home, primarily in Wiltshire and Hampshire but also stretching west into Dorset and north as far as Oxfordshire. Travelling round this region we take the temperature by conducting formal interview and research processes, and also through the more informal route of following our noses; revisiting old haunts; talking to family and friends, and listening for gossip. I call it dredging the hedgerows. The idea is to gather together the world as it looks from these places we know intimately, and share those perspectives on life with the wider world through making theatre.

We seek to feed our backgrounds into the contemporary cultural discourse in order to amplify the voices of the people we care about. We don’t only do this because we think their lives and their voices are important; our close focus on where we’re from is our way of advocating the validity of all lives, all perspectives, all cultures. Arguing for the importance of the detailed, the ‘unGooglable’, in one cultural context where we can deliver such detail with confidence is our means of insisting that people’s lives should be regarded and respected in all their complex specificity. That, to my mind, is the first step towards living in a tolerant, open society.

If you really wanted to get into it, perhaps you could say that makes us a very post-Blairite theatre company. It’s a common reflection on the legacy of the 1997 – 2010 Labour governments under which the company’s core members were all educated that their approach to cohering modern, diverse Britain into a new, coherent identity ended up looking like an attempt to homogenise culture, to knock the corners off all the different worlds that constitute modern Britain so nothing stuck out awkwardly.

The problem with that approach, of course, is that it negates the possibility of placing genuine diversity at the heart of who we are – it’s actually an attempt to marginalise diversity, brushing what makes each of us unique under the carpet in order to celebrate the things we share. Which doesn’t really get us anywhere, because if we shared all that already, we haven’t changed anything through the act of amplifying our common wealth. A truly open society would be one that worked to foster respect and interest in difference. A truly open society would allow people to have their corners. We argue for that reality through our exploration of our own little corner of the country.

We make theatre in order to argue for a change of emphasis to the curation of our present cultural discourse. The path we’d like to tread was mapped out by Seamus Heaney, who said in his Nobel Prize speech, “Even if we have terrible proof that pride in the ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not erode our love and trust of the indigenous per se. On the contrary, a trust in the staying power and travel-worthiness of such good should encourage us to credit the possibility of a world where respect for the validity of every tradition will issue in the creation and maintenance of a salubrious political space.”

Respect for the validity of every tradition – that’s a subtly but crucially different emphasis to the Blairite project and, in that change, I think, lies the future direction of the progressive left. So our ongoing project at Up In Arms is an attempt to change the emphasis on how we view the society in which we live; to argue for localism and genuine diversity as crucial parts of our future. A grand ambition for a small theatre company, no doubt; but we’re good at getting laughs as well, and no matter how much of a joke the modern left is, they can’t really claim that, so perhaps we have a USP that gives us a chance of mattering!

While We’re Here is on in The Salberg from Thursday 15 to Saturday 17 June. For tickets or more information contact the Ticket Office on 01722 320333 or visit