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 Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Watermill Theatre - Beneath the Lines

8th to 11th July 2015.

Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Bravo! to the federation

Watermill embraces rural primary schools in specially-written play

The Federation of West Berkshire Rural Primary Schools: Beneath the Lines, at The Watermill, from Wednesday, July 8, to Saturday, July 11

Once again The Federation of West Berkshire Rural Primary Schools has taken to the stage of The Watermill in this annual celebration of drama. It is a remarkable feat of organisation, involving more than 100 pupils from six local village primary schools.

This year, assistant outreach director Heidi Bird has written a moving and intriguing debut play Beneath the Lines. It is set in 1839, when Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Western Railway Line is nearing completion; the only crucial hindrance is the major task of excavating the Box Tunnel near Swindon.

An army of navvies are employed to complete this dangerous undertaking, living in shanty homes – beautifully realised by set designer Libby Todd and strikingly lit by Lawrence T Doyle with a haunting soundscape by Josh Robinson.

Director Heidi Bird uses a clever theatrical technique by having the same main characters in each of the vignettes played by children from each the schools, wearing identical period costumes that seamlessly flow from one scene to the other.

Life is hard for these workers, with long arduous hours of manual labour, but for their leader Jolly and his delightful wife Lizzie they hope that when the tunnel is completed they will have enough money to realise their dream of a new life with a farm of their own.

But all is not going well as the locals are suspicious of these migrant workers and the two-mile tunnel is proving to be more difficult to construct and a disastrous accident brings tragedy. In fact it will take two-and-a-half years to build.

Juxtaposing this tale is a story set in 2015 where a group of children play together near the corrugated iron shed where the navvies used to live. They find a letter in an old tin box and so the two generations become inexplicably united.

As they explore the wood they come across a lost, bewildered child who is obviously vexed, but what is she doing alone in the woods and who is she? I can't give that away as it would be a spoiler.

This is a truly poignant play, performed with gusto by a young enthusiastic cast, far too many to name, who were obviously relishing their roles. They are a credit to their schools and they all should feel exceedingly proud of their splendid achievement.

Even the front of house staff entered into the spirit wearing GWR hats and waistcoats.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening that emphasises the vital importance of the part that drama and the arts plays in our schools. Bravo!