The Shepherd's Life

James Rebanks, adapted by Chris Monks
Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

Kieran Hill as James, with flock of Herdwick sheep, in The Shepherd's Life Credit: Keith Pattison

You might reasonably expect that Lakeland has had enough of real-life drama during this winter's floods, but maybe that provides all the more reason to stage a brace of world premières that each celebrate the special characteristics required to survive its environment.

First up was The Professor of Adventure, Peter Macqueen’s self-penned one-man play about the cave-dwelling Millican Dalton, now off on a regional tour. If that provided a lesson in economical story-telling and staging then The Shepherd's Life is pretty much an epic, and one that unashamedly plays straight to the hearts and minds. It is an enchanting and thorough piece of drama that flirts with sentimentality but has nothing to blush about.

Chris Monks has both adapted and directed a stage version of James Rebanks’s phenomenal bestseller that wrapped his personal odyssey around his family’s history as sheep farmers on the Cumbrian fells.

It becomes a theatre show with everything. Drama, tragedy, humour, romance and even a flock of Herdwick sheep, and their sheepdog minders, thanks to the mastery of marionettes and movement laid on by puppetry director and designer Jimmy Grimes. It’s testament to his special skills that a puppet puppy draws particular audience approval!

Then again this is a play, and in a place, that also knows all its audience’s prejudices. These seem embedded in anything beginning with W—Wordsworth, Wainwright and Walkers (Fell) all draw knowing laughter.

It’s safe to say there’s an awkward gene in the Rebanks family line but it’s one that’s clearly helped them survive the rigours of farming and that’s all captured by its director’s abundant stagecraft. Chris Monks’s creative team outnumbers his cast of eight and put together they are all dwarfed by a couple of teams from a community cast who help ‘herd’ the sheep besides taking on many other roles. It’s taken one man and some dogged determination to shepherd this stage show.

A highly-effective split-screen technique fills in a Lakeland panorama with restrained use of digital projection, while dialect coaching ensures even the language is as rich and jagged as the landscape.

In the role of the author, Kieran Hill acts as narrator and central character in what could so easily become an over-dominant performance were there not some equally talented cast members supplying a score of characters around him. David Fielder and Martin Barrass are stonewall solid as grandfather and father, while Catherine Kinsella more than justifies a recent Manchester Theatre Award with three distinct cameos. Given that she’s also currently appearing in TV Lakeland drama The A Word, she could be at risk of becoming a resurgent Cumbria’s poster girl.

Then again, if the Lake District is lucky enough to be chosen as a UNESCO world heritage site next year, The Shepherd’s Life will have played no small part, and this charming stage adaptation polishes that effect.

Reviewer: David Upton

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