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FringeReview UK 2015

Vacant Possession

Inroads Productions

Genre: Site-Specific

Venue: Brookside House Southover High Street, Lewes BN7 1HU UK


Low Down

‘My subject is war, and the pity of war. The pity is in the poetry.’

Wilfred Owen wrote those words as a Preface to a book of poems that he hoped to see published in 1919. He never did – Owen was killed in 1918 on the Western Front.

Sara Clifford’s subject is war, too. The pity of it, but also the mindless brutality of the military machine. And the mindless nationalism that sweeps away people’s humanity.
Her last piece, ‘Home Fires’, was about training camps in Sussex for new recruits destined for the trenches of the Great War – ‘Vacant Possession’ is partly about the First World War too, and also about the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars in the early nineteenth century.

These happenings are distant memories now. Clare Best’s poetry deals a lot with memories, and how the echo of powerful events seems to … linger.


Clare Best’s house in Lewes has been sold – her son Freddie has left home and she and her husband are downsizing.  The house, ‘Brookside’, dates partly from the
seventeenth century, with later Georgian additions, and it’s being sold as ‘vacant possession’ – without any objects or occupants.  ‘Possession’ is also of course a word used when something is under the influence of spirit forces.  As Clare’s poems tell, the very structure of an old building is built of objects which have their own histories, their own stories.

“Wise old house, of great oaks felled
Gone to sea in ships, then back, and broken
Bringing tide, and salt – the lick of flame and blood”

There were about fifteen of us in the group, being shown round the house by Clare Best. It’s a beautiful building, with comfortable furniture and lots of paintings on the walls. It felt like a cross between an ‘artist’s Open House’ and a National Trust guided tour, as Clare stood under an arch and told us about a painting of one of her ancestors. Then she moved away, out of our line of sight, and the explanation was taken up, seamlessly, by another Clare Best, who came from behind the arch and took her place in front of the painting.

Almost identical – blonde women dressed in long white blouses and black trousers, very similar build and face, with voices hard to tell apart. An unnerving moment, and an indication that this wasn’t going to be just a simple house tour.  Clare (but which one?) told us that – “Sometimes, living in the house, you feel that you’re living with all the others, in a time that goes round and round.”

‘Vacant Possession’ isn’t exactly a ghost story, but as we were guided round the house we entered rooms where the past seemed to overlap with the present, and we could see the previous occupants. It wasn’t done with stagy lighting or special effects, they were just … there, and the end result was that it felt – natural.  There have been numerous ghost sightings where someone walks into a room and sees someone behaving perfectly naturally, and only later realises that they were seeing a spirit. That was very much the effect produced here.

So what did we see? Which of the previous occupants manifested themselves?

In an attic room we heard voices, and a door swung open to reveal Major Barbarie and Captain Willard.  They’re soldiers – Marines, I imagine, because although in red uniforms they’ve been serving at sea for years – and they’ve been sent to provide a garrison for the town against a possible French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars.

The Major immediately orders the commandeering of what food is available, despite shortages of everything – “We must feed the soldiers first”. The Captain tries to remind him that – “We’re here to protect the town, Sir”, but his superior officer can only see the situation as one of discipline – We must stamp out insurrection at the first sign. We cannot afford to take any risks”. When a starving labourer comes to beg for food, the Major’s response is – “Don’t be ridiculous. If we give him bread we’ll end up feeding the whole town”. He orders the man to be put in irons – “this one may cause trouble with all the rest”.

Breathtaking. It’s the townspeople’s own food that the soldiers have commandeered, and now they are branded as ‘insurrectionists’ if they dare to ask for some of it to feed their families. Sara Clifford gave us the same illustration of the military mind-set in ‘Home Fires’, where army recruits who went on strike for liveable accommodation (they were in muddy tents while the officers were in dry huts) were threatened with courts martial and execution for ‘insubordination’.  Nothing changes …

The Major has been at sea for long years, used to the creaking of ships’ timbers, and he can hear the same noises in this old house – “Great oaks felled, gone to sea in ships, then back, and broken. Bringing tide, and salt”. He hears something else, too, and stares down the room towards us. Is he sensing our presence, in his future, as we are seeing him in our past?  As Clare Best says – ‘a time that goes round and round’.

Does anyone remember ‘The Stone Tape’? It was a 1972 television film by Nigel Kneale (who’s better known for ‘Quatermass’). It’s a ghost story, with the basic premise that what we experience as ‘ghosts’ are actually real past events, somehow encoded and recorded in the fabric of buildings, able to be picked up by those people sensitive enough to experience them.  That’s what Sara Clifford and Clare Best are working with here. There’s a lot of piano music in the production, and Clare muses –

“Where have the notes gone?
Have they been cloned by the old walls?
Are they resting among rafters? under floorboards?
Will others hear them on clear mornings, in years to come?”

Clare mentioned a number of other ghostly experiences that had taken place over the years. She (but which Clare?) is a good storyteller, but the experience was made much more intense by a flash of lightning coming through the bedroom window (it was a stormy night) as she was speaking. You know you’re in the hands of a good production team when even the Gods are on their side …

Other families lived at ‘Brookside’ before Clare Best’s. Gertrude and Edmund Glover were there early in the last century, and their son Brian was killed in France during the First World War. As we moved into Gertrude’s bedroom we came across them, (or their echo, I suppose), as Gertrude was packing away some of their son’s things.  She was obsessed with his memory – how would his grave-plot look?, how would they organise his memorial service?.  She could only see him as a shining symbol of patriotic sacrifice, an example for his younger brother to follow.

Most of Gertrude’s bile is reserved for conscientious objectors – “those damn idiots up at Charleston; should be thrown in jail and throw away the key!”… “I could kill those dirty Objectors”. As in any war (think about the Iraq invasion), propaganda means that any questioning moral stance is seen as dissent – you are either with us, or against us. Gertrude probably saw her Bloomsbury Group neighbours as weird avant-garde intellectuals anyway, and their opposition to the war just confirmed her view. As in ‘Home Fires’, the horrors of the Western Front hadn’t been understood back in England. It was Virginia Woolf, of course, who was one of the very first writers to talk about the traumas of ‘shell-shock’, with the psychologically damaged ex-soldier Septimus in her post-war novel ‘Mrs Dalloway’.

Benjie, the younger brother, was also serving in France. “He can have Brian’s room, now, when he gets home”. I was reminded of ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’, where Franz Kemmerich’s boots are passed down through the group of doomed schoolboy soldiers as they perish one by one in the carnage of the Great War. Gertrude hasn’t had a letter from Benjie for a while, and she’s hopeful and excited when the post arrives. I just hoped it wasn’t a second black-edged envelope …

There was music; piano pieces by Erik Satie played by Clare’s husband Philip.  We met Clare’s neighbour too; Mary Anne, who told of her experiences living in the house, and we visited Clare’s son Freddie’s old nursery.  He wasn’t there, but in a beautifully performed sequence all his old teddy bears and toys clambered across the nursery floor and into a trunk by the door. Actors we’d seen as the Soldiers had changed into black, and along with Nicola Blackwell, the play’s director, they moved the toys so naturally that they seemed alive.  As with other very skilled puppeteers I’ve seen; after a few seconds the operators just seemed to … disappear, and we saw only the rolling gait of the teddy bears as they moved across the room.

‘Chose’ to see just the bears, I suppose. Much of the magic of theatre is that suspension of disbelief that takes place in the mind of the audience. It’s the same with the ghosts. We know that they were just actors (very good ones) but for the duration of the show we chose to believe that we were seeing a manifestation of something from another time.

The writing, both Clifford’s and Best’s, the acting and the staging all worked together to make this a truly outstanding production.  Having two very similar women playing Clare was a device that gave the piece an edge of unreality right from the beginning, and somehow made it easier to accept the ghostly people we encountered later on.  And it really is a one-off – the house is sold, Clare and her family will no longer live there and so the event won’t be repeated. It will exist only in memory (and in this review).

But who knows?  Maybe Clare Best is right, and that events and sounds do become ‘cloned by the old walls’. In a future time, will someone in the house see a group of people slowly climbing the stairs, looking around them and listening intently?. Will they hear the piano?