It’s 1919 and in the village hall in Badger’s Bridge a woman is playing the piano. Another woman walks into the hall and is clearly surprised. She speaks, and when the first woman turns from the piano to answer, her surprise crystallises into suppressed shock, as the pianist is clearly a man. In 2018, in the village hall in Biggin, the audience are rapt.

Grace Doherty, played beautifully by Will O’Connell, has come to Badger’s Bridge to bury all that’s left of his friend William; some notebooks, locks of his hair and photographs. The woman he has arranged to meet is William’s sister, Margaret (Victoria Brazier), who, once she gets over her shock, is intrigued by Gracie’s story of a war-time concert party and William’s death from friendly fire.

Margaret had a good war in the sense that, like so many women, she was given unusual levels of responsibility. And, like those other women, had to relinquish it when the men came back. Now both she and Gracie face an uncertain future, and how they deal with it is the rest of act one. Let’s just say it involves quite a lot of singing and dancing, perfectly managed on the tiny stage.

Act two brings us to the present and a flat somewhere in Birmingham where Sean, grandson of Gracie and Margaret, is making arrangements for the care of his aged mother despite a text from her that she’s off to Barcelona to see the opera. The care company rep is Mirjana, who is from Sarajevo, and as a young girl lived through the war there. O’Connell and Brazier are utterly convincing in their new incarnations, and Mirjana’s stories of life in Sarajevo bring the horror and chaos of war firmly home, and there’s a nice little twist at the end.

The production is part of the Arts Council Rural Touring initiative and Irish writer Deirdre Kinahan has created a piece perfect for the brief: a small cast performing a highly entertaining play about something important, and at 40 minutes each way with an interval, plenty of time to get to the pub. But what is extraordinary is the astonishingly high quality of the writing and acting, and it’s very nicely directed too by Sophie Motley. I don’t say that because it’s in a village hall, I say that because I see a lot of theatre and very little of it moves, entertains and makes me think the way this piece did.

At one point, in what for me was a haunting intimation of post-Brexit, post climate change chaos, Mirjana says: “Of course you cannot imagine, because you have always been safe here. And that safety is a gift. But I think that in England you do not treasure it. In England you will only know it when it is lost.” My sister and I argued about this all the way home. 

It is also extraordinary because the actors travel in the van and help to put up the set and take it down before moving on to the next town. There’s a lot of heavy lifting, and it’s hard work. In normal life, the cast turns up half an hour before the show and goes home after the curtain call. But there’s a lot of charm in rural touring. Like when you go into the pub and ask what time it shuts, and the landlord says “when we fall over”. Biggin, I’ll be back.

By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor

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Photos © Kirsten McTernan