Cider with Rosie
A stage adaptation by James Roose-Evans
Performed by St Luke's Church Players, 13th-16th May 2009
Cider with Rosie, published 1959 and the first book in Laurie Lee's famous trilogy, details his boyhood in the tiny Gloucestershire village of Slad from 1918 to the 1920's. A perennial favourite, the book was made into a stage play at the beginning of the 1960's.
The show starts with a delightful solo of the Joyce Kilmer (1886–1918) poem, Trees;
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Sensitively sung by Mark Plumley, who also played the Squire and Mr Davies, the piece immediately draws us into the young Lee's life. Loll, as he is affectionately known by his three 'generous, indulgent, warm-blooded, and dotty' half-sisters and his brothers, was effectively dumped into the English countryside, in the form of the wild and overgrown garden of the family's new home, at the age of three. It's an entirely alien landscape for the infant – but it came to colour his entire world. At the end he deeply loved the village and its surroundings, and the valley in which it lay.
It's a challenging work, demanding a decent singing voice as well as deft acting skills. Each scene is introduced or ended (and sometimes both) with a song of the time. Both fitting and poignant, they evoke the atmosphere of a vanished England, from 'And the Band Played On', through 'Jerusalem' and 'Just a Song at Twilight', to 'Shine on Harvest Moon'. Adult Laurie himself, adroitly played by Alistair Dawes, acts as the narrator, reading from the text of his own book.
The performance takes us happily through Loll's early days, starting with his deep and abiding love for his mother. We experience his schooldays, and his reactions to the teachers, Crabby B, ably played by Sarah Croker, and Miss Wardley, 'her reins looser but stronger', portrayed with authority by Ruth Dawes.
We meet the feuding grannies whose house adjoined the Lees'. Granny Wallon - 'Er-Down-Under – who makes amazing wines, and Granny Trill - 'Er-Up-Atop – who studies almanacs and spends the days combing her hair, two wonderful old women whose lives (and deaths) revolve around each other like binary suns.
We know with the village's inhabitants the fun and excitement of the first village daytrip to Weston-super-Mare, and can laugh sympathetically at the plaintive cry of 'Where's the sea?' (Anyone who's visited this seaside town will know that the tide goes out so far it is, indeed, sometimes difficult to see the water!)
And we feel for Loll at the first stirrings of sex, the first tentative, delicately portrayed explorations into awakening desire with Rosie...
The end is particularly evocative, bringing together Laurie the Narrator and young man Loll over their mother's coffin. Laying pink roses on the wood in a slightly surreal but very powerful trip into the past, Narrator Laurie reaches back to the young man he had been and the woman who had, despite all her faults and flaws, brought him up with such love.
Amongst a host of fine performers, two in particular stood out. The first is Gwyn Williams, playing Laurie's mother Alice (nee Light) who enveloped his world with her "flowers and songs, her unshaken fidelities, her attempts at order, her relapses into squalor, her near madness, her crying for light, her almost daily weeping for her dead child-daughter, her frisks and gaieties, her fits of screams, her love of man, her hysterical rages, her justice towards each of us children - all these rode my Mother and sat on her shoulders like a roosting of ravens and doves." Entirely convincing and lovable, we felt almost jealous at the end that our mothers weren't like Laurie's.
The second is Linda Hole, playing the roles of Grandma Trill and the wonderful Baroness von Hodenburg, who wants desperately to be an opera singer. Both roles were played with a wonderfully memorable comic touch that had the audience laughing - especially the Baroness, whose attempts to hit the high notes had the rest of the cast wincing in the background.
There were a few minor elements that detracted from the performances. The acoustics in the hall are not good, and the piano was occasionally too loud, drowning out some of the singing and making it difficult to hear the Narrator. The seats, unfortunately, were very uncomfortable, especially for such a long work. The scenery was minimalistic, using just one rather bland backdrop in every scene, and a limited number of props, tables and chairs, mostly – though it must be said that given so little to work with in the way of external set dressings the cast was necessarily stretched and performed admirably. I particularly liked the way the passing of time was shown by the use of the costumes – rustic long skirts and aprons for the early days, changing to the flapper frocks of the twenties further in.
In any performance of this type there are bound to be actors of all different skill and experience levels, which was admirably handled by the casting and director Simon Williams. The young actors in particular should be, and were, applauded for their courage in performing such a demanding work. Overall it was a very enjoyable evening, and even the bittersweet ending didn't detract at all from the fun.
Cider with Rosie has a personal touch for one of St Luke's Players regular audience – the late husband of Ella Sculpher, a resident of Brislington, went to school with Laurie Lee, and knew several of the characters in the play, including cider-drinking Rosie Burdock of the title.
© 2009 Joules Taylor