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Return to Akenfield

Adapted from Craig Taylor's book by Ivan Cutting, Naomi Jones and Craig Taylor
Eastern Angles Theatre Company
Dragon Hall, Norwich, and touring
(2009)

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Ronald Blythe's 1969 book Akenfield, which captured a literary snapshot of life in a small Suffolk village told by the people who lived it, has become a deserved classic of the 20th century. It is hard to imagine that Craig Taylor's 2006 follow up, Return to Akenfield, will ever achieve such heights, partly because it is exactly that - a follow up, an addition to the original which will always be seen in the shadow of its ancestor.

This is a shame, for not only is it a well crafted, excellently compiled and hugely entertaining collection of 21st century rural stories, but it is also vitally important. As Taylor's character says at one point in the play, "Akenfield was required reading at my school in Canada." And so Return to Akenfield should be in England today. And for that reason alone Eastern Angles should be applauded for staging this book, which has been directed by Naomi Jones who worked with Max Stafford-Clark at Out of Joint on other verbatim texts, such as The Permanent Way and Talking to Terrorists.

The book is presented as a series of monologues by characters in the village (or the area which Blythe re-named 'Akenfield'), each consolidated by Taylor from his long period of time spent interviewing and recording the inhabitants. The play text takes a slightly different form: four actors take on the roles of all the villagers, sometimes introducing themselves by way of a bit of personal or professional history, and at other times simply sharing out the words from the original and using them in some constructed piece of dialogue. It makes no odds even if you are very familiar with the book; passages originally said by travelling New Zealand men will suddenly come from the mouths of resident Suffolk girls, but nothing is lost. Such is the way of making verbatim theatre and in this case the exercise has been so astutely executed that between the four performers and the text, the play moulds a staggeringly layered and varied portrait of a place and its people.

Of course the writer is, as David Hare says of his own verbatim work, "all over it", but seeing the nuts and bolts that make something can be as rewarding as looking at the finished article. Readers of the book will also notice that there are additional voices that do not appear in the original, but programme notes explain what at first seems like an attack of amnesia: more people were interviewed specifically for the production, an exercise which produced the only real story-line of the play, concerning the relationship between a polish farm worker and a young local girl, as well as some always gratifying to hear Tesco-bashing.

Jones' direction is simple; the stories are strong enough to need nothing more than good voices and plenty of quick, slick changes of staging, which on the whole is all delivered excellently. Where some of the performances come a little unstuck is in the search for a laugh which isn't there, or by giving the characters a common sense of jollity by playing everything with a smile and a chuckle, which can have the distracting effect of being a bit "bumpkin" like.

However the strength of the words never lets this go too far, at times drawing quite unexpected - and quite affecting -moments from all five performers, to say nothing of genuine laughs. But it is David Redgrave and Sally Ann Burnett who most successfully display the eloquence of the original with their utterly authentic portrayals. They seem to pull-off what must be the hardest thing in performing verbatim drama, by making it look as though they are doing nothing at all besides repeating the words of others. As such, their work - their acting - is invisible, and the stories they tell are that much more enchanting as a result.

As Blythe points out in an after-word at the end of Taylor's book, it would be wrong to be sentimental about the changing ways of the English rural life - forty years ago it was a grim existence. But there are vital and important messages that come across in Return to Akenfield from voices which are seldom heard. This play is not only a joy, it is also a unique portrait and a quite warning signal. Although Eastern Angles is a regional touring company, one can't help feeling a little saddened that this show isn't visiting London, or some other bigger cities outside the area, to whom much of what is described would be completely alien. Perhaps even some of those city dwellers that so happily criticise English farmers and rural life might even learn something. It's got to be worth a try

"Return to Akenfield" tours extensively in the east until 6th June 2009
Check www.easternangles.co.uk for details.

Reviewer: Henry Layte