It’s always nice to see local success, and as co-creator of the acclaimed touring theatre company Angel Exit Theatre, Portsmouth-born Lynne Forbes is something of a local girl made good. As she prepares for Angel Exit’s forthcoming tour, we caught up with Lynne to talk her memories of Portsmouth, her work and the brand new show, The Ballad of Martha Brown.
Lynne, you have close ties to Portsmouth. What’s your connection to the city?
I grew in Portsmouth and went to Mayfield School before studying theatre studies at South Downs College – which made me want to go on and study drama at university. My family and best friend from school still live in North End and I am always back visiting every month or so. I’m proud of being from Portsmouth so staying connected to the city is really important to me. Our last couple of shows were on at New Theatre Royal (I’m so pleased about the rebuilidng which is going on down there – very exciting for the city!) – but I am looking forward to performing at The Spring for the first time.
Now you’ve moved away, what are your fondest memories of Portsmouth?
I have many fond memories of Portsmouth and even though I’ve lived in London now for 16 years – Portsmouth will always be my home. Some of my fondest memories are of spending summer holidays cycling down to the seafront with my family (including Grandma, Aunties, Cousins) and spending all day on the beach – I love the sea. And of course going out with my friends to the pubs down Albert Road. I used to love going to indie clubs on the pier – which is sadly now closed – that area of the front needs a bit of a makeover I reckon!
When you’re back in town, where’s the first place you go?
Usually to my Mum and Dad’s house – and to visit my sister and nephews in Anchorage Park! But I always like to get down to the seafront. I can’t come home without seeing the sea. I’ve started running and it’s such a pleasure to run along the prom – I try to do this every time I come home. I live in Richmond by the River Thames in London – but it’s not the same at looking out across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, the beach huts, Canoe Lake – I love it in Southsea. Now I also always visit All About Tea on Middle Street in Southsea – have you tried their Portsmouth and Hampshire tea blends? Amazing!
You created the Dorset-based company Angel Exit with Tamsin Fessey. How did the company come about?
I have been running Angel Exit since 2007. I met Tamsin doing an acting job up in Hereford (Stig of the Dump – I played her Granny!) and we had a shared interest and passion in devising new work and physical theatre and so it seemed to make sense that we start making our own work together. We came up with the idea to create a film noir style show as we both loved the genre and we were given support by the Brewhouse in Taunton – so we set ourselves up in the South West (Tamsin is from Dorset). We are now associate artists at Lighthouse Poole’s Centre for the Arts and Dorchester Arts. Although we both live in London whenever we make work with Angel Exit we go back down to Dorset as we have so much support down there. This is our fouth Arts Council funded tour and we’ve also just got a commission to make a piece of work called Plant Family Croquet for the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew for their summer festival Plantasia.
How does the company approach creating theatre?
Tamsin and I usually start talking about ideas we have for new shows – things we’ve read (stories, poems, newspaper articles etc), pictures, certain images – and then we carry out a process of research and development (R&D) with a creative team (usually made up of actors, musical director, designer). We explore ideas, music, movement and text to see if we have the basis for a show – and if we like an idea enough to make a whole show out it. We usually carry out a few periods of R&D over a period of time (in between writing funding applications, booking tours, doing other jobs!) and then we generally work on a script before we get into the rehearsal room. With The Ballad of Martha Brown we actually started rehearsals with draft 6 of the script. We spent a week in the Marshwood Vale (a very rural area in West Dorset) with our co-writer Amy Rosenthal and then carried on writing over the course of a couple of months before we started a four week rehearsal period – which actually isn’t that long to create a show with live music and physical choreography!
Martha Brown isn’t the first time Angel Exit have been inspired by Dorset’s history. How important is local heritage to the company?
Our show Moonfleet was adapted from the novel by J.Meade Falkner and was set in the area around Chesil Beach. We had a departure from Dorset with The Secret Garden but Dorchester Arts approached us with the idea to open the Dorchester Festival 2014 and we had been thinking about exploring the idea of Martha Brown having read a novel called My Name is Martha Brown by Nicola Thorne – which is based on the true story of the last woman to be publicly hanged in Dorset. So we thought it would be a good match to tell another story set in Dorset. -Local heritage is important – but we are mostly drawn to stories we think are interesting and can be interpreted theatrically.
Why is Martha Brown’s story of particular interest?
It was the quote from Thomas Hardy which drew us initially to the story. Thomas Hardy was a sixteen year old boy when he saw Martha being hanged in North Square in Dorchester in 1856 – but it was 70 years after this that he wrote: “I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back”. We were struck by this image (it has been said this experience inspired Hardy to write Tess of the D’Urbervilles… in fact Tess pops up in the show!). We were also keen to tell the story behind the sensational headlines of Martha the murderess. Martha Brown was portrayed by most media in her time as a “monster” with a focus on the fact that she was older than her husband and that she had wild hair. We wanted to look at what might turn a person from a milkmaid into a murderess and the circumstances that catapulted Martha Brown from poverty to notoriety. From rural farming backwaters into the county town, where she met the hangman from London who lived in a very different world, one on the cusp of industrialisation. The hangman William Calcraft was also a very interesting figure (famous for his “short drop” and called “the showman hangman”) and the hang fairs of the nineteenth century (as often described by Charles Dickens) are also so fascinating.
If people haven’t seen an Angel Exit show before, what can they expect from The Ballad of Martha Brown?
Angel Exit are very much inspired by the European traditions of clown, chorus and buffoonery. We tell stories though physical ensemble theatre and mix original recorded scores (by Tom Ball of the band Marthas and Arthurs), live music, song – and humour. People might think the story of the last woman to be hanged in Dorset is going to be bleak – but the show is peppered through with wicked humour, macabre songs and physical comedy. We have some fantastic actor-musicians and physical theatre in the show, a funny and moving script – and a great story. What more could an audience want?!
The Ballad of Martha Brown is at Theatre Royal Margate on Friday May 9th, 7.30pm. The show will be followed by a post-show chat with the company. Tickets cost £12, £10 concessions and are available to book now.