Watermill Theatre - Camp Albion
6th to 16th July 2022
Review from Newbury Theatre.
For those of us who lived in or around Newbury in 1996, the A34 bypass was a contentious issue. At that time, the A34 ran through Newbury on the inner relief road, now the A339, and the traffic jams and air pollution were horrendous. On the other hand, the new A34 would involve large scale destruction of green space and trees.
Opinion was polarised, but many of us could sympathise with both sides. Danielle Pearson, the author of Camp Albion, has sympathetically presented the arguments in this three-hander where the cast play four main characters and a variety of others.
The story is set in a protest camp on the route of the new A34 where Dylan (Joe Swift) and Foxglove Sue (Kate Russell-Smith) have made their home. They are joined by Cassie (Hannah Brown), a student on vacation who wants to find out what’s going on and has brought a film camera to record it for her university course. Dylan and Sue are suspicious at first but Carrie and Dylan are attracted to each other although both are very diffident. Carrie’s mum Viv (Kate Russell-Smith) lives in Newbury and is strongly pro-road.
A key part of the story is the development of the main characters, showing the problems – physical and mental – that the protesters face. This is very well handled by the cast, as is the transformation by way of accent and personality into the secondary characters.
The play is punctuated by songs, accompanied on guitar and violin, which fit naturally into the story as they sing together in their camp. It’s definitely not a musical.
The set by designer Isobel Nicolson is a makeshift shelter, the protesters’ home where all their assorted stuff is stored.
The Director Georgie Staight says in her programme note that as the show has developed it’s felt more and more relevant as the urgency surrounding environmental action has grown.
How fitting that this delightful play should have toured local villages and come to rest at the Watermill which was so close to the heart of the protests.
Review from the Newbury Weekly News.
Bypass activists head to West Berkshire theatre
Back in the early 90s, Newbury knew little of eco-activists or the looming climate crisis and lentils were loony food. What it did know about was terrible traffic congestion.
It seems unbelievable now that you could sit for a couple of hours waiting to pass through town on the main artery north. So when various bypass options were mooted, they were initially greeted with enthusiasm... until the chosen route turned out to be the least acceptable to many, cutting through swathes of ancient woodland, areas of SSI, precious water courses – the very definition of the beauty and identity of Newbury’s countryside.
The community was bitterly divided and as the monstrous clearance machines moved in, local people joined the ‘ecowarriors’ in the ‘Third Battle of Newbury’, an attempt to protect those sacred trees, flora and fauna, to hold up their brutal destruction, through 35 camps, tree houses, a network of tunnels and organised protest.
The national media spotlight was well and truly on Newbury.
Although united in conflict, the bypass protesters were as individual as their reasons for being there.
Set in 1996 in a fictional camp, with The Watermill’s trademark actor/musicians, writer Danielle Pearson’s Camp Albion examines this through three personal stories: Cassie, a somewhat naive university student, played with youthful enthusiasm by Hannah Brown. She comes to the camp to video the protest and gets drawn into activism as her relationship develops with Dylan, played by Joe Swift (who admits that on landing the part he had to ask his parents in Basingstoke if the bypass protest really had been a big thing).
He represents the beginnings of future climate anxiety that now widely affects young people’s mental health. He scorns Cassie’s commitment – accusing her of just being there for the story – able at any time to beam back to her ‘privileged’ life. For him, this is home, he lives his beliefs.
But activism comes at a personal cost as Cassie learns when her relationship with mother breaks down, their views entrenched on opposing sides.
Kate Russell-Smith doubles as Cassie’s mother Viv and puts in a robust, witty performance as the seasoned lifelong activist Foxglove Sue.
Light relief too, in the appearance of the iconic pantomime cow – yes, it really was a thing, arrested for trespass.
Running through the piece, giving it context, is live and recorded music, with apposite lyrics from back in the day – like Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger, Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit and Bob Dylan’s poetic rallying call The Times They are A-Changing. A soundtrack, too, evokes the increasing menace of approaching chainsaws and voices raised in resistance.
With Isobel Nicolson’s clever set packed into a couple of vans, the company have been touring outdoor performances of Camp Albion to rural venues before a run in The Watermill auditorium from July 6-16.
The theatre and Bagnor village itself was one of the places most affected by the construction and protests, indeed people assumed the theatre was closed for the duration, so it was good to see a piece reflecting of those emotional times in the programme by then artistic director the late Jill Fraser. I think about them each time we pass under that hideous concrete bridge by the turn-off to the theatre.
Jill would have approved of this production – it’s a snapshot in time, a ‘conversation’ that tells some of the story.