FringeReview UK 2019
Did you know that it was the Romans who brought cherries to Britain?
No, me neither. But they did; along with onions, leeks, sweet chestnuts, and herbs like rosemary, thyme and basil. It seems they brought garlic, too, which puts an interesting spin on the traditional English distaste for ‘that stinky foreign muck’.
I learned all this from a roadside cherry-seller called Hannah, sitting in a lay-by with her folding chair, her punnets of fruit and her ‘Cherries for Sale’ sign to attract passing motorists. As well as selling her fruit, Hannah chats to quite a few of them.
It wasn’t an actual lay-by – it was one end of the warm and welcoming bar of The Hope Inn in Newhaven, and all of our cars were safely parked outside. For this was a production commissioned by Inn Crowd, an organisation which supports rural pubs throughout the South East of England to host spoken word, poetry and storytelling performances. We were an attentive audience of a few dozen, and the regulars at the other end of the bar kept their voices low out of respect for Hannah’s performance.
Hannah is fascinated by people and their stories, and by the changes that happen to cultures and landscapes over time, and she acted out some of the interactions that she has with her customers. People like Ken, who showed her beautifully crafted stone tools, thousands of years old, whose workmanship couldn’t be matched today. He talked about skills that have been lost, along with local features: like a traditional orchard, sold to a City banker who bought it just for profit and never visits or works the property. Or Mike, a retired engineer who works with like-minded pensioners fixing machinery and keeping metal-working skills alive. Mike wonders if we can relearn mechanical techniques at a time when most young people are glued to their mobiles.
Hannah has a bright and cheery personality, but there’s a constant sense of sadness and loss in her stories. She meets Yasmin, out for the day with group of women, but choosing to walk separately, at her own speed. Yasmin needs the solitude; she tells Hannah of being forced out of her University job, suffering imprisonment and torture. But where? We weren’t told, and that made Yasmin’s situation universal – she might be a Syrian woman, or a Ukrainian, or from any of dozens of repressive countries that force their citizens to become refugees.
Or Lyn, an old friend of Hannah’s whose son is fearful of leaving his home. Hannah has tried to get him interested in the open spaces of the South Downs National Park, but Aaron’s world is depressingly small. Hannah tells us that this is nothing particularly modern; a century ago the local Brighton youths were uneasy at the thought of going as far as … Eastbourne.
So England changes, yet England stays the same. Hannah had shown us fossils from the chalk beds that underlie the South Downs, and we’d learned about the changes brought in by the Roman colonisation. The British Empire did a lot of colonising itself, of course, with the sugar and cotton – as well as opium and slaves – providing the wealth that kick-started British industrialisation and world domination. It’s the African and Asian citizens of that Empire who naturally gravitated to the ‘Mother Country’ who have so unsettled a section of ‘white’ British society.
But there are Europeans who are changing the status quo here, too. Poles. Romanians, Bulgarians. At the end, Hannah tells us that her own family is from Hungary, that she worked as a fruit picker with other itinerant workers before moving on to her present job selling the produce. Cherries are not ‘foreign’ to her – her mother used to make a traditional Hungarian cherry soup.
Hannah isn’t really Hannah, of course. She’s a very talented actor called Joanna Neary. Joanna’s done stand-up as well as traditional theatre and TV, and she was able to bring her characters vividly to life; switching accents, speech patterns and body language to give us a kaleidoscopic impression of the South Downs inhabitants.
Cherry Soup was written and produced by Sara Clifford. Sara led discussion groups and workshops and interviewed many, many people across the South Downs to gather the material for Hannah’s stories. A lot of Sara’s work concerns local people and communities, especially oppressed and disadvantaged groups. It was good to watch Joanna Neary’s performance at The Hope Inn because it’s a favourite pub of mine. Plus, a few years ago, Sara Clifford staged ‘Home Fires’, a promenade production about First World War army recruits preparing for deployment to France, and the terrible conditions they had to endure in a military camp at Newhaven. That took place in Newhaven Fort, perched on the cliff above The Hope Inn, so this production felt almost like coming home.
“England changes, and England stays the same” This performance of a beautifully realised piece at The Hope Inn was just one of a tour of stagings in pubs across the South Downs National Park. By the end, hundreds of people will have watched a very engaging theatrical performance, but we will also have had our eyes opened a bit wider to the traditional life of the region, and how quickly it’s changing. Hannah tried to get Aaron interested in the National Park as a ‘Dark Skies’ area, where an absence of light pollution allows a clear view of the heavens. Seeing the stars above is wonderful, but this production gives us a clearer perspective on our own community. These days, that’s incredibly important.