According to the taxi driver who took us from the station to The Theatre in Chipping Norton, there’s a lot that goes on in town. Amanda Holden upsets the ‘Chippy’ locals with a bespoke thatched roof that does not fit the local style, Jeremy Clarkson accumulates speeding tickets in the latest Top Gear prototype, and the removal men continue to find curling irons in Rebekah Brooks’ (former) residence. But whilst the Chipping Norton Set indulge in their own Cotswolds shenanigans, there are a numbers of playwrights up to far more remarkable activities.
This is precisely why we went there. Last Thursday, Paines Plough added another patch of the UK to its nationwide theatrical tapestry, Come to Where I’m From. Once again we asked writers to tell us about the place that they call home. And this time, it was the turn of the Cotswolds and Oxfordshire writers Greg Banks, Clare Bayley, Susannah Finzi, Joe Graham and Rose Heiney.
The brilliantly welcoming Artistic Director there, John Terry, greeted the team and five writers out of the rain and into his theatre. We could not have asked for a better home for the day. If you have not paid a visit before, we’d suggest booking a seat on the train from Paddington and making the hour long journey. A tight rectangular balcony hovers above the stalls, giving The Theatre the feel of a miniature music hall. The green furnishings, wooden rafters and muted lighting contribute to the unique atmosphere of this intimate 213-seater.
All five writers got the opportunity to rehearse onstage during the afternoon and hear each other’s pieces. A single chair was placed dead centre for Greg, Clare, Susannah, Joe and Rose to give voice to the pieces that they had begun two short weeks beforehand. The writers themselves were a mix of performers and debutants, so we spread ourselves across the auditorium to check for pitch, but mainly just to enjoy the words being spoken. More on them later, though.
The order memorised and read-throughs done, the only place to go to was The Chequers round the corner. A respectful selection of ales and pub grub calmed last minute nerves, as conversation focused on local theatre hubbubs and the infamous Chipping Norton panto which had already begun casting. The only disappointment was that Clarkson did not make an appearance, so that we could pelt a few thick-cut chips in his direction.
Plates polished and pints sunk, it was time for the main event. Locals braved the rain and arrived en masse for the 7.45 performance. The Paines Plough team and writers gathered front of house, with the audience members, and then took our seats in the auditorium. Rather than waiting in the wings, a decision had been made earlier on in the day. There were to be no lighting states and the everyone was to be visible at all times, to reflect what Come to Where I’m From is all about: writers telling a room full of people, including the others involved in the project, what home means to them.
Clare played with form and recounted memories of friendship politics in her later teens, and running between friends’ houses, to the banks of the Isis, to the pub, defining who she was along the way. Joe, a Glaswegian by birth, told us about the problems of not quite being from neither here nor there. Susannah spoke to us about the happy isolation of her village in the Cotswolds and the delicacy of selling a family home. Rosie highlighted why there is always more to returning to somewhere you once lived than first meets the eye. And Greg remembered his itinerant mother who never quite set down roots, using stories from the past to justify why he had decided to do so himself.
Fictional or fact: that is the question asked of most writers these days. With Come to Where I’m From, though, it simply does not matter. It was evident that the audience were captivated by the words being spoken throughout. No matter the truth factor, everyone could find something to muse on or appreciate. A rapturous applause rounded off the evening and we headed to the bar to discuss the day and bid our farewells.
All the writers agreed that although short, an impending deadline always give rise to frantic moment of inspiration. Rather than second guess themselves, all five had to commit pen to paper, or finger to key, and write. You too can listen to the final pieces, just as soon as we upload them onto the website. Watch this space.
This weekend we are off to the coast. As well as open auditions on the Friday, we have the pleasure of taking over the Brighton Dome on Saturday for the next leg of Come to Where I’m From. See you there.