Laurie Lee’s memoir Cider with Rosie is itself a patchwork, a hand-wrought quilt made up from comforting familiar fragments. For this dramatisation Daniel O’Brien (the nom-de-plume of the Theatre Royal’s artistic director Colin Blumenau) has stitched in some of Lee’s later verse and TJ Holmes has embroidered it with his own music and with arrangements of tunes, both sacred and profane, which would have been familiar to rural folk in the first three decades of the 20th century.
The set provided by Dora Schweitzer for this production directed by Abigail Anderson is itself a fractured delight. The stage-cloth suggests a treasured willow-pattern plate, branches and pieces of country furniture drip from the flies, hats, shawls, picture-frames and musical instruments dangle invitingly from the twigs. Six actors, including Holmes, play all the parts, switching from child to crone, girl to boy as required by each short vignette of Lee’s life in Gloucestershire swirls and dissolves in front of us.
It’s a staging which takes a bit of getting used to. The first half is overly long as the kaleidoscope rotates its large set of country characters in front of us. The cast – Devon Black, Amy Humphreys, Joannah Tincey, Antony Eden, Holmes and Liam Tobin – is splendid and utterly credible in all its characterisations. All sing and play their various musical instruments competently and produce some excellent four-part singing, notably in “The Cherry Tree Carol” which closes the first act and opens the second.
There’s a nice use of what Holmes describes as the “underscore” – mugs and spoons, buckets and boxes used to provide a rhythmic accompaniment to the action. Children without manufactured toys will improvise these from whatever’s to hand and this is cleverly suggested. A table upturns to become a cart, a ladder will be both the school-mistress’ dais and a sickbed. This is never a cosy or sun-bathed world; the draughts of cruelty and hardship smoke down the rickety chimneys and flurry through ill-fitting windows.
Commendation must also be made of the work of dialect coach Mary Howland who has eschewed any flavour of Mummerset. is the first production from the Bury St Edmunds theatre to tour nationally for five years. It’s a bold attempt to mirror Lee’s own shifting throughout the book and verse between the child experiencing (but not fully understanding) and the adult remembering (but not necessarily accurately or completely). It may not work completely, but when it does you can smell the magic as it evaporates.