For the last 18 months Perfect Circle has been working with various local community groups to produce a theatrical production which portrays some of Malvern's unique stories. In July the show went live, with over 162 people seeing the show at Great Malvern Priory, and many more watching the smaller performances in the weeks leading up to the play. Reviewer Nigel Turner writes about his experiences of the production.
The “Route to the Hills” initiative is designed to celebrate the richness and diversity of Great Malvern’s heritage and culture, from earliest times right up to the present day. Malvern’s Perfect Circle Theatre Company, which has established itself as a leading Youth Theatre company in the region, joined forces with this initiative, researching, devising and finally presenting an original piece of community theatre, based upon the memories and aspirations of a wide range of folk who live on Malvern’s slopes. It was thus entitled “The Folks from the Slopes” and was performed aptly in Malvern Priory, the very centre of the town, on the 14th and 15th July.
From the first, it was made clear to us that we were being welcomed into the Priory, not to be lectured at, but to be invited to share in different people’s experiences of life in their communities, on these slopes. We were to expect a variety of styles of presentation — film, dance, song, poetry, sketches, interviews. Furthermore, we should be prepared to move to different parts of the building. An appreciation of this ancient interior was thus to be a vital aspect of the whole experience.
The residents from Clarence Park opened the proceedings, sharing their memories on film. Nevertheless we felt that they were speaking directly to us, without exception revealing a quiet pride in their achievements in many diverse fields. A picture emerged of individual lives making up the complex patterns within a community, seeking fulfillment at work, at play, in friendship, in helping others as well as themselves, in growing older.
Pride of a more directly infectious quality was very evident in the next item, as pupils from Northleigh Primary School revealed its extraordinary history,from total destruction by fire to its rebirth with another school in a brand-new building. The pupils involved us in the story, first through a very clearly delivered shared narration and then through a sequence of vigorous dance and mime , which culminated in a moment of extraordinary emotional power, as we witnessed the two schools being united together into a circle before us. There could have been few dry eyes in the house.
A sudden shift in location signaled a complete change in style and focus. Behind the high altar, a small group of local poets and singers waited for us to arrive, to commemorate with us the lives of famous [or notorious] Malvern women. This item was boldly delivered, with sudden shifts in style and intonation. We veered sharply from Dame Laura Knight, through Lady Emily Foley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and on to the morally ambiguous, possibly victimised Florence Bravo — all women who courted controversy, asserted their individuality and refused to be categorized. We were left with a feeling that much has yet to be resolved.
But little time to reflect— we’re on the move again, to the other side of the altar and squeezing into St Ann’s Chapel, to be entertained by an experienced group of Malvern amateur actors, performing a devised piece celebrating the arrival of the Radar ‘boffins’ in WW2, and the subsequent growth of Malvern’s scientific community. Each player demonstrated versatility by playing multiple roles, thus also celebrating the well-established interest in theatre and drama within the life of the town; possibly also nudging us to reflect upon Malvern as a vital centre both for scientific research and for the performing arts.
A final move into the Chancel, to sit in the choir stalls. It was fitting that the concluding item should be presented by some young people from Malvern whose experiences and skills have been enhanced by their membership of the Perfect Circle Theatre Company. Ostensibly a ‘Malvern journey based on interviews’ to find out what the folk of Malvern liked about the place, its focus rapidly started to shift in multiple directions: how can we make something out of nothing— is Shakespeare useful as a fall-back — how about escaping to the secret park of the imagination — let’s bring on a couple of dogs —- are famous people to be revered or laughed at, or both — how to work the audience— how to learn lists of names—- why bother—how and when to stop ———.In short, a celebration of Theatre, full of the irreverent creativity of youth, brought our journey round this ancient Priory to a thought-provoking yet highly satisfying conclusion.