Ann Ellison, Artistic Director of The Mission Theatre's resident Next Stage Theatre Company, has just announced that the company's 10th production at the open-air Minack Theatre, Cornwall in 2017 will be Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff. Bath audiences will have the chance to see this moving and memorable production at The Mission Theatre from Tuesday 27th June - Saturday 1st July 2017 before the company tours to Cornwall, performing at the Minack Monday 17th July - Friday 21st July 2017.
A strong cast of talented Next Stage actors will tell the story of Stephen Wraysford (Chris Constantine in his Minack debut), a young English Lieutenant battling the horrors of the First World War, and still haunted by his ill-fated, pre-war affair with a married French woman, Isabelle Azaire (Hayley Fitton-Cook, who returns to the Minack stage after last performing there in Next Stage’s highly-acclaimed Amadeus in 2009).
Although the main protagonists of this play are Stephen and Isabelle, many other characters from Faulks’ beautifully-written novel feature in the play. The audience experiences the bravery and sacrifice, as well as the brutality, of WW1 soldiers through kindly Londoner Jack Firebrace (Richard Matthews) and other soldiers played by ex and current members of Next Stage’s Youth company (Ben Armstrong, Philip Davies, Will Greensides, James Head and James Langley). Throughout the play, the story ranges from war-torn battle-grounds and field hospitals (complete with nurses played by Stephanie Barton, Liza Greenhalgh and Ella MacGregor) to life in French towns during the years prior to the German occupation. In one such we meet Isabelle and her family - husband Rene Azaire (Bob Constantine making his first Minack appearance), step-daughter Lisette (Next Stage Youth member Lydia Gibbons), sister Jeanne (Lydia Cook in her fifth Minack show) and family friend Berard (Ren Leming - returning to the Minack after playing Mr Beaver in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 2015).
Since 1998, Next Stage Theatre Company has produced nine plays at the magical Minack on the cliffs above the idyllic Porthcurno beach. Ann Ellison (then Ann Garner) counts as one of the highlights of her 23 years as founder and Artistic Director of the company, the moment that she “picked up a phone on a bleak 1996 November morning in a free period I had from teaching that day, calling The Minack Theatre in Cornwall, speaking to Phil Jackson the Theatre Manager, and attempting to convince him that he would not want to wait “five years” to see Next Stage performing at his beautiful theatre on the cliffs at Porthcurno.”
Never a company to do things by halves, Next Stage decided to make its debut on the Minack stage with patron Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s devilishly-clever comedy Sisterly Feelings - a play which can follow one of four different story-lines each night, depending on the toss of a coin and the whim of an actress at the end of each act. The reviewer for The Cornishman said of Next Stage’s production: “Bath-based Next Stage Theatre Company, making its debut here uses the Minack stage well, handling its set pieces so adroitly one quickly forgets the fact that the play was conceived as a piece of indoor, albeit in-the-round, theatre.”
After the success of Sisterly Feelings, Next Stage Theatre Company was invited back to the Minack in the summer of 2001 to perform Peter Schaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun. This rarely-performed epic was yet another ambitious staging for company - which had just celebrated its 7th year of producing challenging, stimulating and inspiring theatre in Bath, Bristol and on tour to Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. The Royal Hunt of the Sun consisted of huge pieces of specially-made set, originally-designed costumes and a complicated choreography of large scenes involving the 30-strong cast playing the warring Incas and Spaniards. The production was an enormous success in the Minack’s summer 2001 season, thanks to the stunningly-beautiful set, the strong cast, clever direction and an excellent production team behind the scenes.
The acclaim received by The Royal Hunt of the Sun secured Next Stage a returning bi-annual slot henceforward in the Minack’s summer season. In 2003, a stellar cast of Next Stage actors performed Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (adapted from the French novel by Laclos) - a passionate story of love, lust and betrayal amongst the French aristocracy in the 1780's. In true Next Stage fashion, a creative chess game played out on stage mirrored the triumphs and losses of the protagonists. The cast were described by the Minack reviewer as: “In fine form, even the servants do much more than stand and wait, but make the beds with style and speed, help the play's 18 scenes to run smoothly and, as busy cushion carriers, somehow manage to stay within the bounds of becoming comical.”
In 2005, Next Stage made its fourth appearance at the Minack with another Ayckbourn: The Champion of Paribanou. A large cast of actors, some old hands at the Minack and some making their debut, some Next Stage veterans and some members of the Youth company, took to the stage in August of that year with an exotic tale of unrequited love and daring deeds, with more than a few typical Ayckbourn twists and turns thrown into the plot! 2005 was an exciting year in the life of Next Stage. The company was now in its twelfth year and it had just successfully opened an independent performing venue in the heart of Bath – The Mission Theatre.
One of Ann Ellison’s most ambitious feats as an Artistic Director was Next Stage’s 2007 production of Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of His Dark Materials. Philip Pullman’s epic trilogy of novels set in a myriad of magical worlds was adapted for the National Theatre as two full-length plays, which translated beautifully onto the Minack stage, playing alternate performances. It was quite a technical feat to rehearse and tech 2 complete shows in the same length of time - one weekend - that is normally reserved for a single production. However if Next Stage’s reputation at the Minack as a highly-professional amateur company producing top-quality theatre with ambitious sets, effects and casts wasn’t already established, His Dark Materials certainly made the company's name. The production received extremely high praise when reviewed, one critic commenting: “The best amateur companies are doing all that the professionals are doing, and sometimes doing it even better.”
Taking a break from family-friendly entertainment, in 2009 Ann Ellison decided to bring the world of 18th Century musical intrigue to the Minack by staging Peter Schaffer’s dark and sumptuous play Amadeus. The praise received for this production in reviews needs no elaboration: “the play is staged so skilfully by the Bath-based Next Stage company” “sensational”, "breathtaking”, with “actors of an exceptional calibre” “as appetising and as filling as a Vienna schnitzel, from its crowd scenes, its handsomely costumed royal court – to its more intimate moments, from its slick shifting of furniture and changing of scenes to its actual story-telling, it is as smooth as the sea was on its opening night.”
2011 saw Next Stage return to the Minack at the peak of the theatre’s summer season this time with a tale set much closer to home than any of the company’s Minack productions had been since 1998. The Prime and Miss Jean Brodie featured a largely female cast, many of whom were members of Next Stage Youth. The play tells the story of Jean Brodie, a charismatic teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in 1930’s Edinburgh who follows her own agenda when it comes to what she teaches her impressionable young students. The titular character – made famous by Maggie Smith in the film version - was played by Next Stage actor Caroline Groom, making The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie her fifth play with Next Stage at the Minack. Reviewers praised Caroline’s portrayal of the misguided, misunderstood and magnetic character, as well as the staging of the play: “director Ann Garner and her production team not only struck a sense of the right period, but also smoothly stretched an essentially interior piece so comfortably to fit the wide open spaces of the Minack stage.”
Returning again to the 18th Century, Next Stage revived a play which had first been performed by the company in 1996: Our Country’s Good. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s story concerns a group of Royal Marines and convicts in a penal colony in New South Wales, in the 1780s, who put on a production of The Recruiting Officer. Set against the backdrop of the ocean and the beautiful Minack stage, Our Country’s Good was a treat for the eyes and ears - not least for those of the playwright’s brother-in-law who happened to be on a walking holiday in Porthcurno when he noticed the production poster and decided to stop and watch our Friday matinee! After the show, he was kind enough to stay around and meet the cast and crew, who were thrilled to hear that he had very much enjoyed their version and that he would pass on a good report to Timberlake herself.
For the company’s 2015 production at the Minack, Ann Ellison decided to return to what Next Stage are so good at - large cast, family-friendly epics, in this instance Glynn Robbins’ adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The play sold out within weeks of the tickets going on sale, and enthusiastic audiences enjoyed magic, mystery, mirth and a myriad a fantastical creatures from tree nymphs to dwarves, as well as the wicked White Witch and the mighty lion, Aslan. A number of actors from Next Stage Youth were part of the cast playing the four Pevensie children, the White Witch’s entourage and trees, wolves and other creatures. All in all, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a huge success.
For 2017, Next Stage Theatre Company is looking forward to producing the topical and thought-provoking Birdsong - a fitting tribute to all the brave soldiers who sacrificed their lives 100 years ago in the Great War.