Theatre in the Rough

by David Davies – 12 May 2011

In the early months of 2010 Reg Yorke was approached by the Artistic Director, Chris Fittock, of a Sefton theatre organisation called ‘Theatre in the Rough’ to assist that group with information about early flying at Freshfield. The theatre group, set up to provide opportunities for young writers and actors between the ages of 13 and 25 through a programme of workshops including playwriting tuition, theatre trips and co-operation with community professionals, had already performed fourteen playlets by thirteen new writers at the Southport Arts Centre in 2009. 

This year they were undertaking research on ‘Sefton’s Hidden History’ and, in particular, three historical projects, namely, ‘Early Flying at Freshfield’, ‘Sefton and the American Civil War’ and ‘The Crossens Canoe’. Information gathered on each project would be mediated through the imaginations of the young theatre writers and the finished playlets performed by the actors before live audiences at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool, over two nights in April, 2011.

Reg had already produced a detailed and illustrated account of the early flyers and their flimsy machines in his excellent booklet, ‘Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’, produced for the celebration of the centenary of flight in Freshfield; and this document was to form the basis of an illustrated presentation to the theatre writers and actors on 31st October, 2010. Reg had asked me, with my theatre involvement, if I would consider the material in the booklet and prepare the presentation for the students, to which I readily agreed. 

Knowing the students would be mostly interested in the lives of the flyers and their personal relationships, lifestyles and motivations, I set about gleaning further information, mostly from the Internet (Wikipedia) and elicited some interesting titbits which I suspected would help spark off the writers’ imaginations. Deducing motives from a character’s outward actions can be risky without supporting evidence, but writers down the ages from the Greeks onwards have taken dramatic liberties with historical truths and handed-down myths. Shakespeare’ s unflattering portrait of Richard 3rd was probably intended to give support to the Tudors in the face of Henry 2nd’s (previously Bolingbroke) doubtful claim to the throne. What better way of keeping in Queen Elizabeth’s good books? Today’s prevailing wisdom is that Richard was successful and ‘not a bad’ king given the times in which he lived.

So, probably stretching the truth a little in telling the stories of the various flyers, emphasis was put on imagining what drove them to pursue their derring-do, life and death exploits: the pursuit of glory and celebrity, the thrill of danger, prize money for air-races offered mainly by the Daily Mail, success with women and, not forgetting the nobler aspirations of pride in country and a wish to be at the forefront of air-technology as Europe stumbled towards the first World War. The Power-Point presentation was made on Sunday 31 August, 2010 to a handful of students at Christ Church, Alexandra Road, Waterloo, a church converted into an activities’ centre (just what Formby needs). Tony Bonney handled the equipment while I did the spiel.

During the next six months the writers did their own further research and wrote their playlets, each lasting about twenty minutes. Six such plays on Freshfield’s ‘Pioneers of early Aviation’ finally emerged and were presented, together with three from the American Civil War and Crossens’ Canoe projects, over the two nights of 1st and 2nd April,2011 at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool. Again, some thirty people were involved in producing the work of the thirteen new playwrights. The project was made possible with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Express Sefton which allowed, subsequently, for the production of a glossy backed book of all the plays.

If some liberties had been taken with the historical facts in our presentation, they paled before the onslaught of dramatic licence taken in the plays themselves. Anyone looking for literal dramatised interpretations of the flyers’ lives would be disappointed. Instead, they would be offered characters owing some resemblance to their originals but, often, heavily disguised with liberal doses of characteristics of other flyers and often involved in incidents not occurring in their own lives. 

Thus, Claude Graham-White (now named Jeremy), in the play “Broken Wings”, appears in a love triangle with his wife and his mistress, Pauline. In fact, Pauline Chase, the famous American actress who played in Peter Pan at Southport, may well have been the famous flyer’s mistress: it is reported she once had an affair with Robert Falcon Scott (of Antarctic fame). The play is beautifully crafted with echoes of Harold Pinter. ‘Jeremy’ crashes his plane at the end and is killed – which never happened to Graham-White.

In another play, ‘Burnout’, Cecil Paterson, founder of the Freshfield Flying School and father of the South African Air-Force, emerges as an Edwardian ‘toff’ scurrilously belittling the efforts of two lower-class Liverpudlians, Swaby and Fenwick who built the Liverpool Monoplane, a revolutionary aircraft which might have been used in World War 1. So depressed does Fenwick become under Paterson’s constant criticisms he makes mistakes, crashes the plane and is killed on a test run for the Air Ministry on Salisbury Plain (a fact). The writer, here, has been much interested in the political milieu and prevailing class divisions of the time.

In ‘Sinking Heaven’ the writer explores the after-effects of the sinking of the Titanic. William Brailey, an eager flyer at the Freshfield school, was also a musician and member of the Southport Pavilion Band. Aged 24, he was engaged to a Miss Steinhilber of St Luke’s Road, Southport. One of the musicians who ‘played-on’ during the sinking of the Titanic, he went down with the ship (facts). The play introduces Bruce Ismay, now conscience stricken after his infamous escape in a lifeboat and constantly haunted by the ghost of the stricken flyer. The characters of Paterson and Miss Steinhilber are depicted at one stage discussing William. The play ends with Ismay, in deep depression, taking his own life. Again, this is a beautifully written little play, full of silences and atmosphere.

The remaining three plays: ‘Particular Friends of Paterson’,’ Aurae’, and ‘Diesel Heart’ are all equally successful in their way but I have outlined those which most appeal to me. Those of us in the Civic Society involved in the venture all enjoyed our participation and commitment. I was impressed with the company’s final achievement and can only hope “Theatre in the Rough” will continue with its excellent community work.