Pennington and Shakespeare


By Christopher Morley

Theatrebarn is exactly what it says on the tin; it is a comfortably raked auditorium looking down onto a compact stage in a converted barn, part of Bretforton Grange in the Vale of Evesham.
The enterprise began over forty years ago when James Wellman, an actor at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and his chef partner, David Swift, decided that they wanted to run their own theatre and fine-dining restaurant. Bretforton Grange seemed to fit the bill, with its medieval long gallery and vaulted stone undercroft, and after two years of planning and work, the opening performance was given by Dame Peggy Ashcroft and pianist James Walker in October 1979.
Performances took place in the long gallery, rechristened as the Theatre Room, with stylish dinners served to patrons afterwards in the undercroft, but demand outgrew the surroundings, so in the early 1990s James and David bought the group of barns behind the house.
They converted the magnificent medieval barn into the present 180-seat theatre, and the adjoining barns became the foyer and restaurant. Theatrebarn had been born.
James and David ran it all themselves from their kitchen table, helped by friends and invaluable volunteers who manned the front of house, dealt with the car parking etc as well as stage managing the performances.
Though James and David have now passed on, the charitable trust that they had founded took over operations, and continued the work they started, under the administration of Andrew Macduff, bringing much experience of working in London's West End theatreland.
Latest in a long line of distinguished arts performing at Bretforton, including soprano Rita Hunter, actors Paul Scofield and Emlyn Williams, and comedian Barry Cryer, is the great Shakespearean actor Michael Pennington, who brings his one-man show "Sweet William", an exploration of Shakespeare's characters and sharing a lifetime's experience of the Bard's words and drama on Shakespeare's birthday, April 23 (incidentally, also his death-day), with a conversation next morning with theatre director Sam Walters, centring on Michael's autobiography "In my own Footsteps".
Michael has decades of experience rubbing shoulders onstage with a company of actors, so is it lonely, doing a one-man show with no-one to bounce off, or indeed rescue him when necessary?
"No, not really," he says. "he first performance tends to be exciting, as it's novel, and on subsequent nights you get more and more confident. You shouldn't need rescue, but if the audience is full of Shakespeare-lovers, one of them might answer back to say you're wrong about something!"

Does Michael feel very close to Shakespeare, both preparing and delivering this presentation. Does he feel the great playwright's presence on his shoulder?
"Yes, I think I do," Michael replies, and continues with a detailed description of Shakespeare's character. He was "an enormously pleasant man - :a good-natured man of great sweetness in his manners, and a most agreeable companion ...a handsome well-shaped man, but not a company keeper..."
How does keeping this show in Michael's head sit alongside anything else he might be rehearsing and performing? Musicians have muscle-memory; what is the equivalent for actors?
"tt's exactly the same!", Michael comes back immediately.
Other actors are famous for their one-man shows, such as Simon Callow with Charles Dickens and Richard Wagner, for example. Does Michael have any others apart from Shakespeare up his sleeve? He does indeed, as he explains.
"I do one about Chekhov which I did before turning to the Shakespeare. I do it less often these days,but I love it, so maybe Theatrebarn will invite me back at a later date? I'd really like that."

Performances on April 23 and 24. Details on 01386 577117 •

Saturday's tickets include a welcome drink and canapes and the post-show meal as well as the performance.
Dress code: Black tie or lounge suit
Timings: Reception 17:45, Performance 18:30, Meal 20:30, Carriages 22:30
Price £90
Sunday's conversation begins at 11.30am, doors open at 10.45. Michael Pennington will be signing copies of his autobiography after the event.

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