Pioneer in the Round.

Peter Cheeseman died on 27 April 2010, aged 78. It’s incredible to think he was that old. Of course, I hadn’t seen him much recently – he retired in 1998, and I had only one sighting after that – which itself was shocking.

But whenever I saw, or very occasionally met, him he seemed perennially somewhere in his forties: energetic, enthusiastic, sure of himself in the world around him.

A New Theatre Form

Cheeseman was one of the leaders of the movement that’s most associated with director Stephen Joseph, advocate of Theatre-in-the-Round when that very natural theatre form seemed improbably experimental. Though crowds gather for a fight, or a demonstration in a circle, not straight lines, half-a-century ago it seemed a law of nature that tiered rows, preferably watching action set on a raised stage with a curtain able to rise or fall at its front, was how a theatre should be.

Quaint as the notion now appears, some still direct in the Round without a full appreciation of how – and why – it works. Joseph knew, his one-time Scarborough actor-turned-playwright-and-director Alan Ayckbourn knows. And Peter Cheeseman knew as well as anybody.

Knowing the Ground

He knew, for example, the answer to the charge that having an audience all round you couldn’t work because the actor couldn’t be facing everybody at once. Knew that a different type of acting was called for – not the magnetic eye and powerfully expressive face conveying everything, but acting with the whole body, acting not to overpower but to communicate.

He didn’t always achieve the most refined performances, and seemed sometimes to have a need for over-deliberation in an actor’s delivery. Stilted though it could be, it meant the words were always clear, whatever way the actor was facing.

He certainly understood the ethos of theatre-in-the-round. Whether at the first, fit-up Vic Theatre in Victoria Road, Hartshill, Stoke-on-Trent, where the stage was a square, or in the smart New Vic opened 24 years ago (24!), which looks circular but isn’t quite – it’s actually a super-ellipse, Cheeseman knew plainness and simplicity of staging was important, for the Round is an actor’s stage.

Floorcloths of branch-lines (for railway play The Knotty), or branches hanging overhead, helped set scene and mood without obscuring audience vision. Simple furnishings and props could be brought on and taken off. Increasingly as technology advanced, sound and lighting were able to make major contributions without physically overwhelming the actors’ world.

From 1963 till his retirement in 1998, the Potteries conurbation was Cheeseman’s theatrical and personal home. It showed in his repertoire. There were classics – Shakespeare or Synge (The Playboy of the Western World was the first show I saw at the Vic).

Telling it Like it Was

But there were two more strands, both of their time. One was the documentary. At first these were researched in local history. The Jolly Potters (much less frisky than it sounds, and which might more accurately have been calledThe Potter’s Jolly from the eponymous mechanical device). Or, from pre-industrial times, The Staffordshire Rebels, set in the English Civil War.

Then possibly the biggest documentary hit – The Knotty, several times revived over the years, an affectionate yet pointed play with songs about the knot of local railway-lines that formed the area’s equivalent of a bus service in the late 19th-century.

Such documentaries were part of the air of the sixties and seventies, when theatre wanted to relate to its community. In the North anyway – Leeds, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Sheffield were also in the Documentary mode, though Cheeseman’s Stoke led the way. Then they came up to date with the likes of Miner Dig the Coal, and notably 1974’s Fight for Shelton Bar, an analysis of the struggle to prevent a nearby steel-works from being closed – a good night out, no doubt, though the steelworks was shut down.

Each performance ended with one of the Shelton trade unionists giving a brief report on that day’s events in the struggle. So, if Cheeseman’s theatre developed the idea of verbatim theatre as actors went out with tape-recorders to get documentary accounts for the script, he came pretty close to creating the pre-computer blog as well.

But there was more than local life, set-book Shakespeare and classics in-between. Cheeseman’s Vic poured generous quantities of brand-new plays on to its stage. Most famously, the plays of his coeval Peter Terson (who also scripted a couple of the National Youth theatre’s notable productions and several well-received TV plays). There was his story of school teacher Fred Evans, But Fred, Freud is Dead, and Evans also appeared in Fred Erects the Tent, second half of a double-bill with Vince Lays the Carpet.

How it Can all go Wrong

Terson was also responsible for the play which formed one of the most disastrous nights I’ve known in a theatre. Whatever they say about school parties, this is an occasion that made plain nobody can more thoroughly disrupt a show than an outing of discontented senior citizens. It’s an experience I recall when anyone in theatre speaks too urgently of the way actor communicates with audience, of the grip of theatre, and the passion and excitement it can produce. It can, of course. But.

It was a revival of Terson’s The Mighty Reservoy, a near three-hour two-hander conversation between the local reservoir-keeper and a newcomer to the Vale of Evesham, a favourite dramatic stamping-ground for the writer. The coachloads of seniors filled most of the seats sold for the performance. This was the Hartshill Vic, where many seats were accessed in practice by walking round part of the acting area.

They listened, and they listened to what, I’d have to admit, was a fairly unrelenting script with none of Terson’s frequent humour. Then they stopped listening. Then they started speaking instead, clearly bored to smithereens. And this is theatre-in-the-round, remember, all about the close relation of actor and audience. The actors continued, but there were only two of them. They were grievously outnumbered as the dialogue slogged along.

Every party-booking arrives at the theatre with its wag, its wit, firmly established. There were several here, who decided the dialogue could, and should, be improved upon. Into act two, the actors must have known that any line in the form of a question was going to receive an out-loud response from the spectators’ midst. From somewhere, all around, the words would come, sniper-like, at any opportunity. Gaining an audible, appreciative response the cast could only wish for from their own dialogue.

Soon the performers were the only two ignoring the effective commentary on the show. The additions weren’t particularly well-formed, but that hardly matters when they’re what the audience were wanting, no doubt soon waiting, to hear.

But the grand finale was unplanned. About five minutes from the end (or to put it another way, about 2 hours 40 minutes from the beginning) the lights go down, around the play’s sole moment of action, the reservoy bursting its dam. They then come up again to show the final state of the two characters.

Or in this case, to find the actors lost amid audience members who’d perfunctorily clapped in the darkness, assuming this must be the end and who, by the time the lights rose had already put on their coats and were moving steadily across the stage towards the relief of the exit.

Philistines to a pensioner, of course – though I admit the play was tough-going, and I can recall little of it, while the audience participation remains vivid.

New Plays, an old Writer and Chocolate Cake.

There were a lot more than Peter Terson. Novelist John Wain, from the Potteries, tried his hand at drama with Harry in the Night, Nick Darke gave a fine Cornish performance in his own debut Never Say Rabbit in a Boat, which came truly alive in its final scene.

And there were other Tersons, like The Affair at Bennett’s Hill, Worcs. Which by sheer opportunism of title brings to mind the region’s most famous writer, Arnold Bennett. If the Vic didn’t stage Bennett’s own plays they dramatised several of his novels, one of these productions, Anna of the Five Towns, being televised.

TV took quite an interest in the Vic’s early days, with a documentary on the making of The Staffordshire Rebels. This is where it’s still possible to see a youthful Ben Kingsley under a thick head of hair, and catch the moment at a rehearsal break when Cheeseman dispatches young Robert Powell to make the tea.

Some of these films, together with a ‘day at the Vic’ kind of documentary made at the local Polytechnic, were shown one evening, to raise funds to archive them properly. As Cheeseman pointed out following the poly doc, the loudest response was a shot of the chocolate cake being served in the crowded café. Quite right too. That chocolate cake more than earned its place in theatre history.

But, despite fond memories of the crowded foyer and the seats that seemed to have been liberated from an old cinema as they passed their comfort-by day, the New Vic offers more space for audiences, and people working on productions. The building itself’s a tranquil, wooded setting – no theatre car-park is as pleasant to arrive in, and there’s an environmental area among the trees. And no other modern theatre has the new Vic’s quiet, spacious dignity

Theatre, environment and community

Current Artistic Director Theresa Heskins recently showed me round, starting from her own cubby-hole of an office (space goes for making theatre, not for being grand). The light, spacious workshop and costume spaces fit round the central auditorium – you really go round this theatre. It has its priorities dead right.

Both Heskins and her predecessor Gwenda Hughes, who had the task of taking over Cheeseman’s creation when he retired, have developed the New Vic’s artistic identity, including its education work and work in trhe community with the terrific Borderlines operation.

This works with disadvantaged, disenchanted young people, and if its skill, dedication and patience could be replicated around the country, a lot of young lives would be vastly improved and a noticeable part of the country’s social problems would diminish. I say this having seen it at work, and by goodness it works.

And it’s there because of the nature of the Vic from the start – from long before Borderlines was conceived or the education programme developed. It’s there because of the passion, energy and belief that Peter Cheeseman brought to his theatre. It’s there because of a view of theatre and society – and, following from that, of society itself, which is about communication, inclusion, co-operation.

And when such things, if they were thought of at all, were thought to be unthinkable, Cheeseman made them fundamental to theatre in the Pottteries. He wasn’t always easy to speak to, or, I understand, to work with. But who goes down in history for being the nice guy?

Final Words

My last sighting was in the restaurant at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Peter Cheeseman was at a table near me to watch a lunchtime show. Alan Ayckbourn, Scarborough’s then Artistic Director, came down to speak with him. Cheeseman was evidently affected by the Parkinson’s Disease that physically infested the late years of his life though still mentally alert.

Ayckbourn’s still writing and directing. Cheeseman, standard-bearer for an idea, and ideal, of theatre, and someone who brought what he wanted into being, is gone. But he should never be forgotten by those who believe in theatre as an active element in its community, while believing also in the force of drama itself. Let the flags be lowered, but let three cheers be raised in memory.

Timothy Ramsden

2010-05-12 09:54:44

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