WHERE better for a picnic and evening of outdoor theatre than the stunning National Trust Cliveden estate near Maidenhead?
Heartbreak Productions set the perfect tone for the occasion last night with their tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Private Lives, Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy of manners about a divorced couple having an unexpected reunion when they honeymoon with their new spouses in the same French hotel.
And the energetic five-strong cast of this Midlands touring company presented a lively and engaging reinterpretation of the play at the tail end of their marathon summer season.
The company head back home to Leamington Spa after presenting more than 250 performances of a quartet of different shows during a hectic three-month summer season that has incorporated everything from Romeo and Juliet to David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny.
Some 200 theatregoers took their picnics to L’Hotel Crevecoeur to watch Elyot and Amanda struggling with their rollercoaster emotions after their unfortunate meeting in Deauville.
The parts were played by Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence in the original 1930 production, and later by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a 1983 Broadway production.
For this outdoor adaptation of the celebrated comedy, nostalgic music and dance helped to create the 1930s ambience as dusk fell on Coward’s delicious one-liners, but there were darker undercurrents too in the barely suppressed violence underpinning the central couple’s stormy relationship.
A fitting season’s end to Cliveden’s open-air theatre productions, as the Heartbreak team packed up and headed home for a final couple of shows and a welcome break.
THERE’S such a deep melancholy about so many of Thomas Hardy’s novels that it’s almost a relief to re-read Under The Greenwood Tree, one of his earliest and gentlest works.
And yet there’s still something haunting about this relatively short love story between Dick Dewy and Fancy Day, traced through the course of the four seasons during one Wessex year.
One reason for revisiting the 1872 novel is to take temporary refuge from the travails of modern existence in a simpler earlier age – and who better to capture the English country scene of the early 1800s than a novelist famed for his pastoral depictions of rural life?
Actually, there’s remarkably little in-depth description of the countryside in this novel, apart from the atmospheric opening pages when we first meet the Mellstock Choir on a lonely country lane through the woods and learn how to wood dwellers, every species of tree has its own “voice”, from the sob of the fir to the whistle of the holly and hiss of the ash.
But Hardy’s second published novel, which takes its name from Shakespeare’s poem in his pastoral comedy As You Like It, is an extraordinary rural idyll which introduces some familiar themes which will recur in his later fiction – not least a fickle heroine struggling to choose between suitors of different social status.
And if it’s not stand-out descriptions of the scenery which make the novel memorable, Hardy achieves such an extraordinarily intimate depiction of the colourful characters in the choir that they all come instantly to life across the centuries, their banter and mannerisms as real and true as if we had bumped into them in the village pub at lunchtime.
Perhaps that’s not so surprising given Hardy’s familiarity with this world. Both his father and paternal grandfather were members of the local parish choir and this book was written in the cottage next to Thorncombe Woods where Hardy was born in 1840.
Bearing a remarkable resemblance to the tranter’s cottage, Hardy’s home – built of cob and thatch by his great-grandfather and little altered since the family left, is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.
It’s just one of a number of autobiographical elements in the book, including the author’s love of old rustic musical instruments, which he inherited from his father, a keen violinist.
You can almost imagine Hardy as part of the group as the choir makes its way up the chilly country lanes with their instruments and lanterns for that Christmas tour of the village in the book’s opening pages.
Village musicians reappear in Hardy’s later novels, reflecting his childhood memories of rural music and dance, and there’s already that sorrowful sense that old traditions are being lost or challenged by new ways of doing things.
It’s the same feeling you get when you visit the Chiltern Open Air Museum and start taking a journey back to a simpler age, where there’s a solidity and authenticity about the buildings and equipment that’s echoed in Hardy’s more colourful characters, like Gabriel Oak.
Already in Under The Greenwood Tree we can see a clash between the old and new order – in this novel reflected in the vicar’s attempt to replace the choir with a new mechanical church organ.
That emphasis on modernisation and the decline of traditional English country life anticipates Hardy’s later novels, particularly The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Not that Hardy was naive about the gruelling realities of agricultural life in the early part of the 19th century, when working hours were long and poverty was widespread.
But he was vividly aware of how industrialisation was sweeping away the old ways, as labourers moved to the cities and the railways began to transform the rural landscape.
And that was something he reflected on in his 1896 preface to Under The Greenwood Tree, in which he pays personal tribute to the merry band of church musicians of whom he has written, and in a further note from 1912 which appears to lament having treated the choir so “flippantly”.
The book has been filmed on three occasions: in 1918 and 1930, and in 2005 was adapted for television, starring Keeley Hawes as Fancy Day. But if the story is a little slow for modern tastes and Fancy a little too infuriatingly fickle, the novel still provides a wonderful glimpse into a long-lost way of life – to the extent that on a lonely path through the woods on a chill winter’s eve, you might just fancy you can hear a few strains of fiddle music from the Mellstock choir on the chill night air.
Numerous different editions of the book are available online and in booksellers, with the 2005 series available from BBC Video.
ANYONE following in the footsteps of Disraeli at the National Trust’s Hughenden Manor shouldn’t miss the chance to look in on the historic church where the former prime minister once worshipped.
Disraeli lived at Hughenden from 1848 to 1881 – and today, visitors are not just intrigued by the Victorian stateman’s county home and colourful personal history, but by the manor’s secret wartime past as a base for mapmakers.
Codenamed ‘Hillside’, Hughenden played such a critical role supporting the pilots of nearby Bomber Command that it was on Hitler’s list of top targets. Around 100 personnel were based here, drawing up the maps used for bombing missions during the war, including the Dam Busters raids and a planned hit on Hitler’s secret bunker at Berchtesgaden.
Skilled cartographers produced maps from aerial photographs delivered by the RAF’s reconnaissance missions – yet the operation was so secret it only came to light 60 years later after a National Trust volunteer overheard a visitor telling his grandson he’d been stationed here during the war.
But away from the cellars, one of the less obvious gems of the estate is the church of St Michael & All Angels – the “church in the park” which provides a glorious oasis of peace amid the rolling parklands so much enjoyed by ramblers and families in the summer months.
The earliest records show a church on this site in the 12th century built by Geoffrey de Clinton, but it was substantially extended and rebuilt in the 1870s. The chancel is the remaining part of the original church, and during the Victorian extension works its floor was redone with beautiful ceramic tiles, the roof altered and the walls painted.
In 1992-94 a major redecoration of the nave and chancel was undertaken and all the Victorian paintings and artwork meticulously restored.
Disraeli is commemorated in many parts of the church but the principal memorial is on the north side of the chancel, unique in that it is the only known example of a memorial erected by a reigning monarch to one of her subjects.
Various items in the church were paid for by the Hughenden Memorial Fund, in memory of the statesman, including the organ and the murals in the chancel.
A detailed history of the church can be found on the parish website and on summer Sundays and bank holidays guests can also sample a cream tea in the historic nearby church house, which in pre-reformation days was home to six monks and a prior.