Singing Librarian flashback: Courtenay

It’s time to buckle those swashes, brandish those placards and be generally revolting in an agricultural way, as the Singing Librarian flashes back to Courtenay, performed at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury and the Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks, during July 2003.

This show is quite unique in my experiences.  It’s the only through-composed musical I’ve ever performed, it’s the only show I’ve been in that’s based on a true story, it’s the only time I’ve had a death scene, and it’s the only time I’ve joined a show mid-way through the rehearsal process.  Courtenay is a pretty new show, first fully performed in an outdoor venue (Theatre in the Park) during the summer of 2002.  After some re-writes, the authors (Christopher Neame and Ethan Lewis Maltby) were ready to bring it to the more conventional stage during 2003, and I answered a plea for more men to add to the ensemble.  Therefore, when I came along, most of the company had been familiar with the musical for at least a year, and all (apart from myself and two other fresh recruits) had been rehearsing with each other and the new director for some weeks.  Thus I had to scramble to catch up with learning the music, at the same time as learning Dido and Aeneas.

I fell in love with the music at first listen, and the score kept revealing hidden depths and nuances to me literally every time I heard it, even once we were performing the piece in front of very enthusiastic audiences.  Heavily percussive and with some thrilling chorus work, it also has its moments of tenderness and beauty.  Very modern and yet, as many musicals are, somehow timeless.  As our leading man, we were fortunate to have Loren Geeting, one of several professional performers who played the principal roles, a man with a glorious soaring voice.  Of course, due to Sod’s Law, he developed some sort of throat problems as we approached the actual run of the show, and had to avoid most of the high notes.  Still, the music excited me each time we came to sing it, and passages still get my juices flowing when they invade my mental jukebox from time to time.

The production itself was a big affair.  The set was simple, dominated by a huge agricultural machine which was turned over by some of the male chorus (including myself) during the first scene, but the lighting was complex and dramatic, the sound design was loud, and the show was brimming over with sword fights, crowd scenes and a pitched battle between the working classes and some guardsmen.  Gunshots and pyrotechnics were used by the bucket load during the conclusion, and I was constantly amazed that none of us perished for real during the show.  As a member of the ensemble, my main job was to look angry at the Landowners, though I did also get to look frightened as I was put on trial, concerned as Courtenay (my hero) was put on trial and cowardly as I tried to run away from the battle.  I had a small part in the final scene as two of us planned to abandon our glorious leader, but was dissuaded (either by his charisma or his pistol, I wouldn’t like to say) just in time for a melodramatic death on a barricade.  Yes, a barricade – I felt like a student in Les Miserables!

As this is, thus far, my only on-stage death, I beg your indulgence as I describe the scene.  Sir William Courtenay, a (to put it politely) somewhat deranged man originally called John Nichols Thom, has come to Kent as a champion of the agricultural labourers, eventually persuading them that he is a/the Messiah and leading them into rebellion and the last battle fought on English (yes, that’s a deliberate use of English rather than British) soil.  In this battle, a number of his followers are killed, as their puny weapons are no match for the firearms of the militia.  Having helped construct a barricade as the scene begun, and having hidden behind it for much of the time, I entered the fray as part of the final wave of attackers, but was cut down as I clambered over.  And so I fell, in great pain, atop the makeshift pile of useless defences, struggling to rise.  As Sir William Courtenay surveyed the scene, a glimmer of hope dawned and I stretched out my hand to him.  As he reached towards me, I knew that everything was right with the world, and I collapsed once more, never to take another breath.  This was momentous stuff for me, developed through improvisation during the rehearsal process, and meant that I was the last to die other than Courtenay himself.  It’s entirely possible that many audience members completely missed this little moment of poignancy, but I was proud of it.  Recently, I visited Hernhill church, where those who died in the battle (did I mention it’s a true story?) are buried, and found a memorial to, in a strange way, myself.

My memories of this show are mostly happy, but very little of great hilarity happened during rehearsals or performance for me to report here.  I recall the leading man practising his swordfight movements while munching celery held in his free hand.  I recall a fellow ensemble gentleman being very dazed after being accidentally hit on the head with a cudgel, and thus forgetting some lines.  I recall having to be led offstage by one of the girls in one scene, as my myopic eyes couldn’t see well enough to avoid the pyrotechnic boxes.  But that’s all.  I also remember how much feeling the show stirred up if you talked to local people about it.  Courtenay is not at all well known in most of the country, but in this part of Kent, feelings about him and the Battle of Bos(s)enden Wood run deep indeed.  Most of all, I recall working with a very mixed, but very friendly, group of people, and hoping that the show would go on to a great future.  Thus far, we seem to have been the last people to perform it, but I still believe that it’s a rather marvellous show.

If you feel like reading more about the show, see either the h2g2 Entry I wrote about it or the musical’s official website, complete with lots of photos (including one with me looking very unkempt – photo number 63).

  1. I wonder how the writer came to choose that topic. Local lad or lass are they?

    Your death sounds like a blast. I’m sure people noticed.

  2. I have to admit my complete ignorance of this musical (although I also admit my ignorance is limitless). Your ‘death’ was surely noticed, if the performance was as evocative as the description. What a pity that the show seems to have been sidelined and disregarded.

  3. Yes, the writer is certainly from a family with long roots in the area. Not so sure about the composer, though.

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