Country life – the musical goes on tour across county

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Musician, Katie Doherty.
Musician, Katie Doherty.

IT was musician Katie Doherty’s move from the city to a remote farm near Blanchland that informed the title of an exciting and innovative Northumberland musical set to tour the county this summer.

Five years ago she moved to Nookton Farm on the Newbiggin estate, where her husband, Stephen Lumley, runs a flock of 1,000 Swaledale sheep and a herd of 30 Aberdeen Angus cattle with his mother and father, Denis and Jill.

Katie said: “I don’t work on the farm. Stephen and his dad do all of the farm stuff and I twiddle around and write music.

“During lambing time, Stephen would not leave the farm for weeks and weeks on end, which was totally alien to me coming from Newcastle, where usually you go somewhere every day.

“There’s a very long road up to the farm and the last part is just rough track that you have to go up in first gear. He used to say to me when I’d come in from work, ‘What’s the news past the end of the road?’

“So that’s where the title, Beyond the End of the Road, came from, although it’s come to mean much, much more because some of the characters in the story have got to the end of the ‘proverbial’ road in terms of where they are in their lives.”

Katie has composed all of the music and lyrics for this November Club production, which is in collaboration with Highlights Rural Touring Scheme, whilst the script has been written by Laura Lindow, director of Open Clasp theatre’s acclaimed ‘Key Change’, that involved women prisoners from HMP Low Newton.

Katie and Stephen are new parents and Katie has also had to juggle looking after her baby boy with her musicianship. Leo came along 17 months ago and Katie says that without the family support she’s had, she would not have had the time to devote to creating Northumberland’s first musical.

“I have had very good family support from Stephen’s mum and dad, who are down the road in Slaley, and my mum comes up from East Cleveland once a week to look after Leo,” she said.

Katie has always loved music and left her home on the North Yorkshire coast to study traditional folk music at Newcastle University, where she stayed on for an MA.

Beyond the End of the Road – subtitled – A Midsummer Shindig, is being directed by Cinzia Hardy and has been made possible by an £85,000 strategic touring grant from Arts Council England and additional support from the Esme Fairbairn Foundation, amongst others.

Hexham Auction Mart has been chosen as the quirky, yet very apposite, venue for the show’s first night, before it goes on a seven village tour.

Mart boss Robert Addison has granted Cinzia permission to stage the production in the Bellingham Sale Ring, the main sheep ring with which Katie’s husband is well acquainted, as his sheep go through Hexham Mart.

“We do recreate a sheep auction in one of the scenes,” said Cinzia. “I have to say, I think the opening night at the Mart is going to be great as you are in the real environment of an auction ring, although you will get local colour wherever this is staged.”

November Club specialises in so-called ‘site-specific’ work, which means their productions are made in collaboration with local people and presented in the place the the story is set.

So for example, to celebrate Berwick’s 900th anniversary in 2015, they drew on the town’s rope making history to create The Great Performing Rope – a series of installations and live activities which included a new sea shanty that Katie composed.

Just last year, they presented The Perfect View at Wallington Hall, in recognition of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s tercentenary, but nothing has come near the scale of this latest production.

“This is probably the most ambitious project we have undertaken as a company,” Cinzia said.

The company has travelled right around the county, from Norham, near Berwick in the North, down to Felton in the West and across to Bardon Mill and Henshaw in the East.

Bardon Mill Village Hall is particularly special to Katie and Stephen, as it’s where they held their wedding reception after a courtship that began at a Tynedale Rugby Club ball.

Thropton, Kirknewton, Shilbottle and Whalton make up the seven villages November Club has visited, listening to local communities’ stories of rural life.

Beyond is as much the villagers’ show as it is November Club’s. “It’s their stories and their material that is informing the writing of the show,” she explained.

“It’s about an imaginary Northumberland village called Place and the people that inhabit Place are representative of the many different types of people who live and work in all of these villages.”

There’s been a real enthusiasm amongst the communities they’ve called on to be involved – and no doubt tickets will sell like hot cakes for the performances between June 1 and 30 – as people flock to see how their tales have been interwoven.

“A lot of the songs have been inspired by what people have told us is special about living here in Northumberland – so the amazing Northumbrian skies were mentioned a lot.

“There’s a lot about life on the farm and how the rhythm of work is not the same as going in for an office job.

“We heard a lovely story in Shilbottle – a couple whose daughter was living in London and was posting something home. She was told there was ‘no such place as Northumberland’. They had never heard of it.

“There is this sense that you’re on the periphery of England and the farther North you move, the more you feel it – for example, some people in Norham feel very Scottish.

“We look at that whole notion of what does the peace and quiet of the countryside mean to different people – to some it’s a smelly place they work in, and to others it feeds their soul.”

Village mythology features a fair bit too. “A lot of the villages have what could be construed as peculiar stories – such as gigantic rabbits appearing and eating their cabbages. Then there’s Whalton’s kern baby tradition. In Norham, it was about a massive salmon that leapt into a man’s arms,” Cinzia said.

The story begins with city woman, Sula, arriving in Place after breaking up with her husband, and the show goes on to examine what happens when town and country collide.

“By the end, everyone has been transformed in some way,” Cinzia added.

The denouement sounds like it will justify the ticket price on its own, as it features a village ceilidh, and life will hopefully imitate art as the audience is invited to join in.

Well-known ceilidh callers David Oliver and Alistair Anderson have been invited to do the honours.

Cinzia said: “Dancing is compulsory and here at the Mart, we will move into the Farmers’ Function Suite – the bar will be open and there’ll be a ceilidh band added to by local musicians.”.

A professional cast of ten actors and musicians will be aided by local volunteers at each venue and November Club is now scouting for recruits.

“Within the show itself will be local people we hope will take on speaking roles,” Cinzia said. “We’re also looking for up to 12 singers to sing a choral piece and up to three people from each place who might be willing to do a turn.”

So if you can play the spoons, give a recitation or simply sing for your supper, November Club wants to hear from you.

“We are asking our audience to go on an imaginary journey to this place called Place and hope that somehow it will connect with people and allow them to maybe recognise some aspects of their own lives within the stories.

“When we staged an initial devising at the Queen’s Hall last September, that was already beginning to happen – people told us they thought it was all about their village,” Cinzia said.

Musician Katie is one of those who might see some of her own life reflected back at her.

“Beyond the End of the Road is not my story but it has got a little bit of me in it as I now live in a rural community, so it’s close to my heart, and the story features a tenant farming family and my family are tenant farmers.

“I feel very honoured to have worked with November Club for 10 years and now to have the opportunity to put the emphasis on the music is amazing. It’s such an opportunity for me, although I am feeling the pressure. It means a lot to me.”

To find out more about Beyond the End of the Road visit www.novemberclub.org.uk and to volunteer as a ‘turn’ email: participation@novemberclub.org.uk Tickets can be booked through the Queen’s Hall, Hexham.

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