Voices From a Time of War

“We heard from those who had crossed that sea. One was a ship’s pilot who brought 88 refugees in a boat that usually takes 15 passengers. A fishing boat for 10 men brought 56 passengers. One refugee ship foundered in the channel, but nearly all were rescued.”

Syrian refugees fleeing to Lesbos? No, Belgians fleeing the devastation of their country in 1914.

In 1914 these refugees were welcomed in England. Towns mobilised to house, clothe and feed them. Even small villages took in a family.

The treatment of refugees is one of the themes in a show I’m putting on in Hertford on Saturday 21 November.


From a Time of War

Saturday 21st November 2015

St Andrew’s Church, Hertford

7.30pm – 9.30pm (doors open 7pm)

An evening of readings and songs, expressing the dreams and reality, hopes, fears and frustrations of those who experienced the First World War, at home in Hertford and at the Front.

WW1 themed raffle
Interval refreshments

Tickets: £10

Tickets from St Andrew’s: 01992 504373  standrew.hertford@btinternet.com

or from Hertford Tourist Office: 01992 584322


Glimpses of First Light

Some photos from the rehearsals, most taken by the multi-talented Vickie Holden:

Three of our actors - (L to R) Julia Hallawell, Vickie Holden (in costume!), Charlie Abbott

Three of our actors – (L to R) Julia Hallawell, Vickie Holden (in costume!), Charlie Abbott

Director Trevor Georges and Catherine Forrester

Director Trevor Georges and Catherine Forrester

The last supper

The last supper

John Holden White, playing Yesh, rehearsing with the cross

John Holden White, playing Yesh, rehearsing with the cross

Late in the evening

Late in the evening

Julia Hallawell as Mary

Julia Hallawell as Mary

All on stage for the final scene (including me, but I was only reading in for an absent actor!)

All on stage for the final scene (including me, but I was only reading in for an absent actor!)

First Light

Poster b

My new play – First Light: a Passion Play for Hertford – had its production at Easter, 3 and 4 April 2015, in St Andrew’s Church Hertford.

The director, Trevor Michael Georges, and a wonderful cast of professional and non-professional actors, made it a fantastic show and the audience response was enthusiastic and moving.

Here’s an extract from the play.

Here’s a clip of the interview I gave to BBC Three Counties Radio about the production: you can listen by following this link https://clyp.it/bmsoab0w

Why I wrote a Passion Play

First Light is not a play I ever thought I would write. Having been subjected to the full blast of a Roman Catholic education as a child and teenager, and having found as I grew older that the more I read and questioned, the more I disagreed with the conventional teachings, I had no wish to write about Christianity.
“I’m not getting involved with religion. It’s a minefield!” as Pontius Pilate says in First Light (one of the many lines I enjoyed writing).
But I have always been interested in the longstanding English tradition of local mystery plays, which are among the gems of the English language. Their lasting power was fully demonstrated in Tony Harrison’s marvellous versions of The Mysteries, produced by the National Theatre in the 1980s. I was lucky enough to see one of these at the Lyceum – it was a fantastic theatrical experience and I have an abiding memory of Brian Glover delivering the words of God in a Yorkshire accent from the top of a forklift truck (yes indeed…).
So when Alan Stewart, the vicar of St Andrew’s Hertford and St Mary’s Hertingfordbury, said the idea had arisen of doing a mystery play in the town, I was intrigued. It chimed with my enthusiasm for community plays, having just written and produced The Last Witch. Alan is a far from traditional vicar and he did not envisage a traditional play – when he wondered whether it would be possible to write a contemporary treatment of the Gospel stories, I saw a challenge.
The medieval mystery plays were a full cycle of dramas, covering typically the creation, the nativity, the passion (ie the events of Easter: Christ’s trial, crucifixion and resurrection) and doomsday, or the last judgment. We decided to focus on the passion and put it on as an Easter event.
The great thing about the old mystery plays is what they tell us about medieval life, rather than what they say about the Bible stories. The writers used the language and situations of their day, so in a nativity play, there is a sheep-stealer among the shepherds. In Tony Harrison’s text, Mak the sheep-stealer complains that he has too many kids at home, his wife sits around drinking and he is skint: “I ate not a needle this month and more.” When the shepherds fall asleep, he sees his chance: “A fat sheep, I dare say, A good fleece, dare I lay, Pay back when I may, But this I will borrow…”
So I see First Light as being in a long English tradition of mucking about with the Bible stories.
First Light treats Jesus and his friends (the disciples) as people living here and now. They are not saints: they are caught in desperate events and they do not know how things will turn out. Jesus – I called him Yesh in the play, partly to reduce the preconceptions about him and partly so that it wouldn’t sound as if the actors were swearing all the time – is not filled with divine foreknowledge and acceptance of his destiny. He is gripped with doubt and fear, but also has courage.
They are not exactly in 21st century England, but rather in an occupied country, which is crucial to the story. I was not drawing any direct parallels here with the political situation in any other countries, but I did want to explore what it would feel like to live under occupation, to feel that sense of powerlessness. The play includes monologues from characters who are very much living in 21st century England and who have been rendered powerless in various ways – by redundancy, or poverty or the constraints of their working life. The woman who has to resort to a food bank to feed her children, and the jobcentre employee who has stopped her benefits are both trapped in the same punitive system.
I’m not a churchgoer and First Light is not an evangelical play, in the sense that it doesn’t set out to convince an audience of specific Christian beliefs. So what is the point of putting on a Passion Play in today’s secular society, if you don’t simply want to make an existing church congregation feel more holy?
I think that even though we are, rightly, a secular society, the Easter story of death and resurrection is a founding myth of Western culture and is worth examining. Everyone is happy to celebrate Christmas and talk about the ‘spirit of Christmas’, even if they are in no way religious. But we don’t talk about the ‘spirit of Easter’. It is a much more unsettling and challenging story, involving a horrific judicial murder, followed by an event that is frankly supernatural – a bodily rising from the dead. What are we to make if it? Much easier to stick to chocolate eggs.
I personally don’t think that the events (albeit fairly detailed) in the Gospels are unedited historical truth. However, I do think there is truth to be found in the Easter story and that is what I tried to portray in First Light. What might death and resurrection mean for us? I’m not talking about an afterlife, but in the life we’re living now. We all encounter death – not just actual bereavement but the spiritual deaths of rejection, failure, depression, loss. Our society dementedly tries to sort people into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and when you are deemed a loser, it is hard to find the resources to strengthen yourself, to value your life again. You need resurrection, rebirth, and my interpretation of the Easter myth is that the possibility of this resurrection is always there. You can view that in religious terms or you can simply look out of your window at this time of year, when spring brings everything back to life.

Seeing It Through



Seeing It Through 15 November

Some images from the show, ‘Seeing It Through’ which was performed at Hertford Theatre Studio on 15 November 2014. Our small cast of five – Toni Brooks, Catherine Forrester (seen in the photo playing young Ware soldier Claud Sweeney in the trenches), Rob Madeley and Steve Scales, plus Director Richard Syms who also took the narrator role of the Editor of the Mercury, gave fantastic performances which were very well received by the audiences. (In the pic, left to right: Steve, Toni, Catherine, Rob).

Now we hope we can put it on again!

The story of how ordinary people lived through the First World War is worth telling. It is a powerful counter to the glorification and mythologising of war, while also revealing much about the roots of how we live our lives now.

Secrets and Spies

8 July Harry and Mabel

Scenes from the performance at Hertford Theatre on 8 July. Rhiannon Drake as Mabel and Ken Boyter as Harry in a scene from Erin Thompson’s play Over By Christmas. October 1914: Harry has just told his fiancee Mabel that he has had to enlist, in order to protect Mabel’s teenage brother who was ordered to enlist by his employer. Mabel is not happy.

8 July Seal & King 2

Ken and Rhiannon as 13 year old Scouts Seal and King in 1914, in Emma Blowers’ play Be Prepared and Be Ware, convinced they have stumbled across German spies who are making explosives to blow up London.

8 July Seal & King 5

Seal and King four years on – Rhiannon as a Hertford Grammar School boy in a very fetching blazer!

Scenes on a Summer Evening


Two plays that have emerged from the Introduction to Playwriting Course in Hertford are getting a script-in-hand performance next week. Both writers have done a lot of work on their plays and a great deal of revising and redrafting is still going on – but it is going to be a really good evening, moving and entertaining.

Tuesday 8 July 2014
8pm – 10pm
At the River Room, Hertford Theatre

Be prepared… and Be Ware
by Emma Blowers
1914. Keen boy scout Seal is ready for the thrilling adventure of wartime, spotting German spies and training to be a hero on the streets and fields of Ware. But the reality of war forces him to learn that doing your duty can mean difficult choices.

Over by Christmas by Erin Thompson
Braughing, 1914. Harry and Mabel are engaged to be married when war breaks out. While Harry enlists to fight in the trenches of France, Mabel is left at home to take over Harry’s job on the railway. Each is changed by their experience and they become caught in a desperate struggle to find a future together in the shadow of the Great War.

Actors: Ken Boyter and Rhiannon Drake

At the mouth of hell…


Our new show Seeing It Through, about life on the home front in East Herts during the First World War, is now scheduled for Saturday 15 November 2014, at Hertford Theatre Studio.

When I started this project, I had no real idea of what daily life was like in England in that time, in contrast to the vivid and grim picture we have of life for soldiers in the trenches. There’s a vague sense that back in England the gilded Edwardian age was suddenly blighted by the loss of its young men, but otherwise things carried on.

I’m discovering that people at home wrestled with some huge changes. Some they debated and agonised over – should there be conscription? Was it right for women to work on the land? Other devastating blows literally fell on them out of the sky. Zeppelins loom very large in the wartime experience of this corner of Hertfordshire. Many people, including children, were killed in air raids. We are collecting eyewitness accounts of them for Seeing It Through. It’s not clear why Hertford and Ware suffered so much – they were hardly strategic targets. Many of the bombs were probably dropped by mistake: it is thought the Zepps navigated by rivers and one theory is they mistook the little River Lea for the Thames (!).

Hertford’s worst experience was the night of 13 October 1915, when a dozen people were killed. One household which miraculously survived the night was that of Annie Swan, a great character who will definitely figure in our drama. She was a novelist, journalist and one-woman powerhouse who did huge amounts for people’s welfare during the war, as did her daughter Effie. Her husband was a GP. He was out doing his rounds when eight bombs were dropped on their house on North Road Hertford. Amazingly, everyone got out alive.

This is how Annie Swan describes it in a letter:

“The house is entirely destroyed and about half our stuff. There were many marvellous escapes among it, as well as of us. For instance our after-dinner tea poured out in the library was not spilled, though most of the furniture was upside down.
It was an awful experience. I really felt that we were at the mouth of hell. Eight bombs fell, 3 on house and 5 on garden – only the poor cats were killed sleeping in their chairs when the kitchen was blown up. While the bombs were raining on us where we stood on the terrace Effie said quite simply, “Mummy do you think this will be the one”? But God did not take us yet. There must be more to do.”

Annie and Effie had already been working in France, near the front line. They hadn’t expected to have the war visited on them at home.