Weardale Gazette Review

The Bonny Moorhen – Revisited at Killhope

After last year’s ambitious production of “The Bonny Moorhen” in a converted shed on Stanhope Show Field, Drama in the Dale has gone from strength to strength, even if I say so myself. With the support of a Big Lottery Village SOS grant this loose association of local thespians is now establishing itself as an independent going concern, working in collaboration with a wide range of local agencies, such as the North Pennines AONB, to bring more opportunities to the Dalesfolk.

Drama in the Dale’s flagship event this year was a re-working of Jim Woodland’s play-script, “The Bonny Moorhen”, for Festival of the North East, a regional bun-feast curated by the iconic Northumbrian piper, Kathryn Tickell, and playwright Lee Elliott of Billy Elliot and Pitmen Painters’ fame. Over two weekends in early summer the Drama in the Dale community quite literally decamped to Killhope Lead Mining Museum (staying on-site in the yurts) in order to stage a site-specific promenade production of the events leading up to The Battle of Stanhope. For those that don’t know, this affray took place in the Black Bull Inn (now known as The Bonny Moorhen public house) on the morning of December 7th, 1818, when the local community came out in force to free a couple of poachers who had been arrested by the Prince Bishop’s men. Someone lost an eye and a shot went up the chimney but apart from that no-one got hurt, except his eminence, Bishop Shute Barrington, whose pride was most certainly dented.

In last year’s Drama in the Dale production the actual ‘battle’ (or riot as it is more accurately described) was understated, all done and dusted in a flash as the action concentrated more on the circumstances surrounding the drama than on the event itself. However, in the run up to this year’s offering, the group have been learning stage combat techniques; Laura Emerson and Tom Burton acquired British Academy of Dramatic Combat certificates in order to school the cast in how to have a right old punch up without the need for an Air Ambulance! And so, at the end of a theatrical tour around the open air museum, led by a choir and band who book-ended each scene with verses from the poignant washer-boys’ lament “Four Pence a Day”, we stood in awe as the cast fell in and out of the houses, fighting for their lives.

Notable combatants were Jeremy Warr and Adam Heslington who not only fought with fists but with wooden staffs and shovels, playing dirty tricks on each other that had the men in the crowd wincing. The lasses got stuck in as well with Helen Mills and Jackie Johnson leaping to the defence of their men-folk, calling each other names and viciously pulling hair before ending up on the ground in an ugly display of feminine ferocity. The kids meanwhile picked the pockets of the fallen assailants in a cheeky display of opportunistic youthfulness.

But before all of this we were treated to a series of episodic cameos charting the rise and fall of Billy Bell, a young lead miner who is prepared to stand up and fight for the rights of his community. Ben Jackson stepped into this role, having played the darkly comic grave-digger last year. His mother, Helen Bell, was played by Fiona Ranson of Satley and Jeremy Warr from Frosterley ably played the rest of the males in the Bell family – the incorrigible Uncle George and the ailing William Bell. Alan Anderson extended his acting skills to play the part of the judge as well as the villain of the piece, Joseph Dawson. As with last year, he and Adam Heslington made an excellent duo, on both sides of the law.

This year’s production also saw a greater involvement of young people with Sam Rawlinson playing the angelic cleric to Helen Mills’ hilariously upper-class Shute Barrington whilst other youngsters became lead miners in a stinking lodging shop and also stall-holders and punters at the local “Pay”, an annual fair.

Drama in the Dale is notable for its inclusion of all ages and abilities and also for its collaborative approach to creating new work. Director Paddy Burton was assisted by local musicians and singers under the direction of Steve Robson and Duncan Brown, whilst Lucy Ridley (nee Taylor) did a grand job dealing with complex logistics. Thanks must also go to the staff and volunteers at Killhope who saw the potential for such a venture and opened up their heritage site for this ambitious production.

Whilst I was deeply involved in last year’s production, I had little to do with this year’s offering as work has now taken me across the other side of the Pennines. But it’s good to be back folks and to see the amazing spirit that still resides in Weardale and to remember the unique and special history of ‘England’s last wilderness’.

Julie Ward