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Pentabus - Precious Bane

31st July to 3rd August 2003.

This is from the NWN.

Some idyllic evening

Pentabus: Precious Bane, at Welford Park, from Thursday, July 31 to Sunday, August 3

This was Mary Webb's tale of loves lost and found in the wild countryside of early 19th-century England. A new world of industry and riches invades the idyllic peace of young Prue and Gideon Sarn's family farm, upsetting life-long dreams and making wishes come true. The essential story is of a girl with a hare-lip, cursed as a witch, blessed in the end.

Last Friday I went with some friends and a simple picnic to Welford Park to see this performance of Precious Bane, a well-chosen piece to be performed in this idyllic setting by Pentabus Theatre Company.

Pentabus is the national new writing company based in the West Midlands. The company was founded in 1974 to tour the five counties of the Midlands, and now tours to small and middle-scale venues throughout the country.

The company also has a strong reputation for large-scale outdoor productions such as Precious Bane. Pentabus won an Edinburgh Fringe First award for Silent Engine in 2002, an Arts Council of England New Writing Award 2003, and has thriving writers' development programme and extensive education projects for all ages.

This, to me, was complete outdoor theatre, not television, not film but a live event, reminding me of the old medieval mummer carts, which used to tour villages long ago - the very origins of taking theatre to the community - which in those days delivered news and parables not through your door but in the town square, in your face.

Precious Bane had constantly changing staging with deeply imaginative use of simple props evoking all the essential elements: fire, water and even a real horse.

This was superb storytelling in our midst by eight actors, acting at its very best and magnificently supported by highly-evocative music performed by a massed choir, which included local performers. This was all much complimented and married to the Welford Park grounds, with the audience sitting on rugs and camp-chairs in an informal structure. It was ultimately capped by a superb flock of 30 geese - on cue, twice wheeling over Welford Park towards the south and then changing their minds and returning as dusk fell.

EUAN SMITH

This is from The Times.

Four stars
The bizarre misadventures of Robert Poste’s child at Cold Comfort Farm did serious harm to the reputation of Mary Webb, the novelist whose tales of desperate passion in remote farmland inspired Stella Gibbons to pen her satire. Like Pope’s Dunciad, the satire outlasted what it satirised.

But if Precious Bane is typical of Webb’s work, her eclipse is clearly outrageous. There is a bracing toughness to her dialogue, vigour in her scene-setting, scorn for superstition and a sympathy with the underprivileged, especially if they have right on their side and refuse to be cowed by the mob.

Ludlow-based Pentabus has been touring Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of the novel to the grounds of four stately homes, recruiting choirs locally for the songs, set by Mary Keith, that conjure up the seasonal moods in an inward-looking rural community in the early 1800s. On a warm evening at Welford Park we sat on a circle of grass in front of the Georgian house. Barrels, baskets, old farm implements and a cart were placed around the periphery, and lanes left clear for the cast of eight to move in all directions within the circle.

The story’s focus is Prue Sarn, honest, dutiful, but hare-lipped and therefore shy in the presence of marriageable men, fleeing from the handsome young weaver (Robert Cameron) whenever he calls at Sarn Farm in the course of his travels around the county. Will these two win through to each other? Or must the accumulation of disasters that befall the farm, wrongly blamed upon her, lead to a fatal trial for witchcraft?

The inclusion of such forgotten customs as telling bees of a death or paying sin-eaters at a funeral is itself interesting, but what makes Theresa Heskins’s production so fully absorbing is not just the conviction her players bring to their roles, but the way in which she sweeps the story forward. Only Emma Pallant, strong and sympathetic as Prue, plays a single character; the others switch from village gossip to thuggish farmer, from murderous brother (Gwilym Havard Davies) to lovesick maid, from cow to hen to snarling dog. Fights are mimed with the fighters standing 50ft apart. The spinning encircles the audience with pink yarn. The wizard (Alex Jones), an almost medieval figure, conjures coins from our ears.

And a different magic derives from the very setting of the performance, for when characters die they walk slowly into the distance until lost among trees. Sublime.

JEREMY KINGSTON

This is from The Guardian, on a previous production in Shropshire.

Three stars
Summer is a time of theatrical opportunism as companies take advantage of the sunshine, offering audiences cultural picnics where they can consume Shakespeare along with Chablis. Many of these shows are mediocre, but not this imaginative adaptation by Bryony Lavery of Mary Webb's classic novel set in the rural England of the early 19th century. Played in the grounds of Walcot Hall, with the Shropshire hills as a backdrop, it feels as if you have been transported back to a world in which a young woman with a hare lip, a mind of her own and a way with words can be demonised as a witch, and love might actually materialise out of the gloaming, if not on a white charger, then on a pony.

Webb's tale of Prue Sarn and her choleric brother Gideon, who dreams of making a go of his farm and sacrifices family and love in pursuit of his dream, is a simple but densely poetic piece of storytelling. Lavery's version captures its tone and style, turning it into what seems like a hymn to a long-lost England. There is a real darkness in the world where Beguildy sells his own daughter, the hireling fair trades in humans and the mob runs together like a pack of wild dogs, snapping at anything and anyone they don't understand.

Outdoor theatre doesn't offer much opportunity for subtlety, but, though Theresa Heskins's production, with its heroines and villains, giddy girls and strong men, paints with bold strokes, it is full of wit, invention and charm. It is also given emotional depth by a large choir, whose voices rise and fall with the emotional highs and lows of the story and float eerily across the air. It is a darkly delightful evening, full of harsh realities and ghostly visions.

LYN GARDNER

The Reviews Gate review ("vibrant theatricality, well organised stage craft, and a clear sense of narrative drive") is at www.reviewsgate.com/print.php?sid=1251.