Seeing A Warwickshire Testimony is like taking a step back in time - in more ways than one.
The subject matter of the play concerns a rural family in Warwickshire from the 1920s to the present day, and follows the life of Edie Cox from childhood to old age. Cherry Morris and Catherine Kanter play old and young Edie with equal distinction and it is largely through Edie's eyes that we see the change and trauma which has devastated rural communities in the twentieth century. After two world wars and massive social change, the locals are being forced out to make way for the Aga-brigade. As Edie's niece complains, 'They're making up a village and plonking it on top of the old one ... like a grave with the wrong headstone'.
But this play is a nostalgia trip in theatrical terms as well. Productions like this were very fashionable in the 1970s. All over the country, community drama groups were using the resources of oral history and reminiscence to devise plays which reflected and explored country life in the areas they served. Familiarity, however, bred contempt and the genre moved from fashion to cliché. Now, a quarter of a century later, the RSC has revisited this dramatic landscape and breathed fresh life into it. This has much in common with those earlier plays - including the inevitable pig-killing scene - but generally it transcends them.
This play is written and directed by women - April de Angelis and Alison Sutcliffe - and it gives a powerful insight into female experience. It s no surprise that the women outnumber the men in the cast by six to three. Having said that, none of the trio of men is a cipher. Each is beautifully observed by writer and actor and Fergus O'Donnell, in particular, gives an incredibly moving performance.
The themes here are universal - death, loss and change. And, while the script is stronger on desperation than on joy, the prevailing mood is of resigned acceptance which ensures that the story ends on a positive note - that is, the survival of the human spirit through all of life s commonplace tragedies.
This is the world premiere of A Warwickshire Testimony, but it s also an exercise in the RSC paying its dues to the local community. No doubt, in future, the play will receive many revivals at the hands of local amateur groups, but one does wonders if it will ever warrant another professional outing. Only time will tell.
A Warwickshire Testimony opened at The Other Place, in Stratford-upon-Avon, 12 August 1999 (previews from 4 August) and continues in repertory until 23 September.