Traditional Drama Research Group
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Performance Review: When Icicles Hang by the Wall

Issue: 
Traditional Drama Forum - No.10

Article type: 
Features

by Mike Kenny
presented by New Perspectives Theatre Company, Long Clawson Village Hall, Wednesday 18th February 2004

A handful of actors arrive in a village and, with minimal props, perform a play and then move on into the night. A scene which might be familiar to many mummers, I daresay, but in this case it was a professional company. I have seen a number of productions by the New Perspectives Theatre Company [1]. I have never been disappointed. I have on occasion thought how like the players or mummers who performed at nearby Belvoir Castle in the 16th and 17th centuries they might be.

At first sight it might seem odd to have a review of a theatrical play here in Traditional Drama Forum, but the play’s publicity leaflet may explain:

"A timeless new play for the English winter"

"When the new-born child of the big house is pitched into the lives of a small group of villagers one stormy, tragic winters night, an extraordinary tale of courage and friendship is about to unfold for Joan, Marion, Tom, Dick and Harry."

"Inspired by Shakespeare’s winter sonnet and shot through with the magic and mayhem of mumming, Mike Kenny's entrancing new play blends enthralling storytelling and raucous comedy in a funny, touching and quintessentially English retelling of the Cinderella story."

"Truly a treat in store for audiences of all ages."

"The Countryside in Winter - Plough Plays - Mumming - Carols - Winter vegetable stew - Bell ringing - Roast chestnuts -all in a simple love story!"

In the programme, the playwright tells us that the project "gave [him] the opportunity to indulge lots of [his] other enthusiasms – traditional stories, mumming, carols".

A scene from 'When Icicles Hang by the Wall'
A scene from 'When Icicles Hang by the Wall'
(More pics >>)

I can’t add a lot to their own synopsis but I can explain where the mumming comes in. In the first act the mummers are invited to the big house to perform their traditional Recruiting Sergeant play. This is a three-hander with an Old Mother Beelzebub (or some such) starting it off. Then comes the Sergeant as a hobbyhorse rider and Tom as his willing recruit: no Doctor, Lady, Dame Jane etc.. "Real life" then reflects the mummers play and not only Tom but also the son of the big house disappear off to the wars.

 

In the second act, after some years have elapsed during which the mummers have not performed because of pressure from the parson and Tom’s continued absence at the wars, the mummers are prevailed upon to perform again at the big house. They decide to break with tradition and to perform St George and the Dragon but they can only do so if the women take part. This state of affairs is unheard of but, nevertheless, they go ahead and I hope I’m not spoiling the plot by reporting that Tom returns home in time to play St George. This time the Doctor is called for and it was all I could do to restrain two of Belvoir Mummers’ Doctors from leaping to their feet. The real Doctor arrives and with some inventive twists goes through the usual routine to the delight of the capacity audience. There wasn’t a gag there you haven’t heard, but to most of the audience it was new: they never bother to turn out and watch us on Plough Monday! The Dragon costume, in particular, showed all the usual inventiveness of mummers with much use made of kitchen utensils, and St George made good use of a "traditional" toilet seat shield: Mike Kenny’s enthusiasm for mumming clearly extends to good observation. It would not surprise me to learn that his enthusiasm extends to participation.

Having recently read Duncan Broomhead’s [2] paper on the importance of families as both performers and patrons I was particularly struck by the way the author, wittingly or not, had lit upon this aspect and on how the attitude of just one member of the family of patrons could influence the history of performance.

One crowd-pleasing moment captures that rapport that should exist between mummers and audience. The family at the big house suddenly become aware of the sound of the approaching mummers and someone declares something like "It’s the mummers coming up the drive". There is a second’s stillness as the cast realises that they all need to be somewhere else in different costume as different characters. "The mummers!" they exclaim as they hurriedly disappear behind the set with comments along the lines of "Do you think they’ll notice?" referring to the audience.

Eventually all live relatively happily ever after.

There you have it then, five players taking on something like 15 parts and a thoroughly sympathetic portrayal of mumming. The eight known mummers in the audience were all impressed, though it was acknowledged that the professionals might actually have rehearsed – surely the point at which art and tradition do digress!

New Perspectives’ winter tour with this production finished at the end of February 2004 but if it is revived in the future in your village hall don’t miss it.

Steve Tunnicliff
Belvoir Mummers

References

  1. New Perspectives Theatre Company (2003-2004) Future Productions: When Icicles Hang by the Wall: 10th December 2003 - 28th February 2004
    Internet URL: www.newperspectives.co.uk, Accessed 6th March 2004

  2. Broomhead,D. (2003) The Alderley Mummers’ Play: a story of survival and revival
    in: Folk Drama Studies Today ed. by Cass.E & Millington,P.
    Sheffield, Traditional Drama Research Group, 2003, pp.7-22