Cumnor Players perform at RSC Open Stage in Stratford

Cast (left to right): Kevin Keating, Jan Kowal, Deborah Cooper, Mark Taylor, Josh Warner, Ollie Bingham, Dan Abrams.

The road from Oxford to Stratford would have been well travelled by Will Shakespeare on his way from London.  The Cumnor Players took the same route in December 2012 to perform JP Blackband’s The Darke Years at the RSC’s Courtyard theatre. Originally performed on the back of a lorry in the Cumnor Football field as part of the RSC’s Open Stages project, the piece was selected from several hundred across the country for an evening showcase of work.

When they let us in through the stage door to the dressing room with lights around the mirrors and an intercom through which the stage manager gave her commands, we were proud to add the Cumnor Players to the wall of fame. Being back stage was a treat, although of course we tried to act as if we were used to such opulent facilities in the village hall.

The list of amateur groups performing Shakespeare as part of the Open Stages celebration read like a tourist guide to the complete British Isles. The idea of the project was to make Shakespeare open to all by supporting acting groups all over the country. We were told this included amateur enthusiasts like librarians and accountants - which you might expect - but also sub-marine soldiers and ex-bank robbers.  We looked around suspiciously.

There were five other groups from the Midlands on stage that evening, all of an admirable standard. The Darke Years was the only new writing in this tranche. An extract for the ten minute slot was cleverly crafted by JP to deliver the punchy themes of professional jealousy, censorship, Elizabethan values, betrayal, and Will Shakespeare’s (allegedly) black heart. Since many of the Cumnor Players were busy that weekend performing sixties numbers in Alice, we’d had to learn the new lines with new players in record time.

All the velvet curtains which had been recycled into period costumes were brought out again and were very much praised by the RSC staff. The sheer acreage of the thrust stage and the cathedral-like volume of the backstage space were at first daunting. But the technical rehearsals and energising warm-ups, led by members of the RSC’s own staff, all helped to take away our nerves.

Even the last-minute appearance of the norovirus failed to stop us, and by the time the moment came to perform, we were just ready to enjoy ourselves. The audience was very supportive and in that galleried theatre with its marvellous acoustics, we relished becoming a small part of the history of the place.

 Deborah Cooper and Jan Kowal