More than 1500 people attended a unique play about the history of Bedford at the Quarry Theatre St Luke’s last week. Commissioned by The Harpur Trust as part of its 450th anniversary, Somewhere in England (The Bedford Play) was a sell out with 6 ticketed performances and 2 additional free shows; a Gala performance for invited guests and a community performance for school children and volunteers from many of the town’s charities, libraries and museums.
The play centred around three fictional characters working for the BBC, which was stationed in Bedford during the 2nd World War. The characters embark on a project researching the origins of the town in which they will be stationed for the next 3 years, a town which can only be referred to as ‘Somewhere in England’ to protect it’s people from Hitler’s Luftwaffe. In a plot expertly woven together by playwright Mark Burgess, a further cast of 7 actors took the audience back and forth in time unveiling a series of flashbacks through 1000 years of history. With costumes hired in by the Trust from the National Theatre, and live music provided by staff at Bedford School, this was certainly a professional production.
The play focussed on key Bedfordians such as Bunyan, Harpur, Howard, Wells and Higgins, as well as giving cameoed insights into the workhouse, hospital and asylum. The play also brilliantly captured lesser known Bedfordians including Sarah Dazley, the last woman to be publically hanged outside the prison in St Loyes Street for poisoning her two husbands and her young son, and two Antarctic explorers, Cherry-Garrard and Mackintosh who were part of Scott and Shackleton expeditions respectively. Glenn Miller, Vera Lynn, Hanratti, the Beatles and Mandela are just some of the famous visitors to the town all captured within the 2 hour show.
With Airlander very much a feature of local news this summer, no play about Bedford’s history would be complete without the R101 which made its ill-fated maiden voyage from Cardington Sheds in 1930. This dramatic and moving scene was brilliantly portrayed as passengers with suitcases and parasols walked up the stairs and faded into darkness, with footage of the R101 projected to a screen above.
Sarah Elam, the play’s producer and project manager of the Trust’s 450th anniversary celebrations said “We have had some wonderful feedback from people who saw the play but a highlight for me was meeting some of our Almshouse residents after a matinee and hearing their own very personal memories; One lady told me how she had been to watch the launch of the R101 as a child whilst another had been at court meeting the baby she was about to adopt when Hanratti arrived for his trial.”
Mark Burgess, who is an accomplished playwright for Radio 4 and wrote and directed the play said “I am delighted that the production was a success both artistically & in terms of it being a sell-out and I’ve been overwhelmed by the hugely positive response from many who are born & bred in the town. I certainly feel that we have done justice to the story of Bedford.”
Chief Executive of The Harpur Trust, David Russell, who came up with the idea for the play, said “There cannot be many towns, or even cities for that matter, that have their own play and I would venture that none are as good as this one.”
The play featured 9 professional actors who are each experienced in a range of media from television and radio to stage performances and pantomime, whilst the two child roles were performed by Bedford Modern pupils Josh Dogra and Charlotte Barnett.
The Harpur Trust has put on a range of community events for the town already this year including a Run and Fun Day in May at Priory Country Park and a children’s art competition and exhibition at The Higgins Bedford. The final event Orchestra Unwrapped (a concert for children by the Philharmonia) will take place in December.