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Summer Lightning on stage

at The Theatre By The Lake in Keswick this summer

Tony Ring speaks to the Director, Ian Forrest

One of our members first notified the Society that the Theatre By The Lake at Keswick was including Giles Havergal’s adaptation of Summer Lightning in its three-play Repertory season in the Main Theatre which lasts from June 4th until November 6th. The other two plays are Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by an up-and-coming young writer named Shakespeare. It seemed to be the signal to obtain more information, and the Director, Ian Forrest, kindly gave up some of his time to speak to Tony Ring.

By the time we spoke, the Company had undergone one week’s rehearsal for Summer Lightning and were enjoying it hugely. Ian explained that the site contains two theatres – the Main Theatre, where the summer Repertory programme is staged (and is a traditional proscenium theatre which seats 380); and the Studio, seating 90-100, which features more modern, challenging, controversial works to ensure that both local and visiting theatregoers have a choice between something light and entertaining and something with a bit more meat to it. Ian added that the theatre operates all year round, staging over 600 performances annually including visiting work as well as home-grown productions. Experience has shown that in the summer, though, many of the visitors will be looking to relax after a day’s fell-walking, and be looking for entertainment in the evenings which does not unduly tax their brains!

I asked Ian how he came to choose Summer Lightning for this season’s repertory programme. He explained that he is always looking for comedies and scripts with a light entertainment factor. Some years ago (actually 2004!) he had read a review of the Northampton production of Summer Lightning; obtained a copy of the play, liked it and thought it had a great feel to it. So he kept it on a shelf for some years waiting for the right opportunity to do it. This year, he said, it fitted in with the rest of the programme.

I confirmed with him that he had not since reading the review been to see a production of the play, so he comes to it ‘blind’. Indeed, he confided, he was in effect a Wodehouse virgin, not having even read the book of Summer Lightning until after he had read the adaptation. Having done so, though, Wodehouse was now firmly on his reading list.

So was it only when reading the novel that he realised that an important character, Baxter, had been omitted from the play? Yes it was, agreed Ian, who added that he thought Baxter’s role in Summer Lightning was something of a red herring, his main function being to rally round Lady Constance and motivate her actions. Because of the sheer length of the novel the adapter, Giles Havergal, had been required to make some major cuts, and the play could bear the excision of Baxter. Ian liked the way that Pilbeam had been built into the villain of the piece role which in the book he shares with Baxter.

One of the theatrical techniques used by Havergal to permit the inclusion of some of Wodehouse’s narrative is to have several of the characters speak directly to the audience. In the productions I have seen the action has always been frozen, and a spotlight shone on the speaker. Ian said that he likes the use of the technique very much in principle and that one of the topics they have been discussing in the first week of rehearsals has been how to present those speeches most effectively. He did not let on as to whether a decision had been taken!

Finally, I asked Ian about his company. He has 15 actors who will each play in three of the six productions being shown in repertory over the summer, three in each theatre. It is a fully professional company and many of the actors have played at Keswick in the past. Indeed, because this is the tenth anniversary of the Theatre in its present form, he actively invited some past members of the company to play a return season. Ian did not think any had played Wodehouse before, but we agreed that did not matter. He pointed out that casting for a rep season has different problems from casting for a specific play, as the actors in the company have to be flexible enough to take what might be three very different roles.

Society members will be aware from reviews of productions of Summer Lightning which have appeared in Wooster Sauce over the years that the play maintains the Wodehousean spirit, and within its limitations of length, is loyal to the plot. If the Theatre By The Lake should manage to sell out this summer, it will mean over 20,000 visitors will have had the chance to enjoy a Wodehouse play, something devoutly to be wished. We offer the cast, director and other personnel involved our best wishes, and hope that they enjoy the production as much as their audiences will.

If you want to be one of the 20,000, you may book tickets by telephone on 017687 74411 between 9.30am and 8.00pm every day, or online at www.theatrebythelake.co.uk.