There were over 200 events filling the town at this year's celebrated Frome Festival. Though we might have attempted to see them all, clashes were inevitable. Just as clear was the abundance of hidden gems, just waiting to be stumbled on. The editor was invited to see a show being put on by Frome Edventure, a local youth and community enterprise group. He can safely say he had no idea what to expect when he traipsed up that alley on a warm Summer evening to Sun Street Chapel.
It is a joy whenever a piece of art answers, through design or happy accident, a question one barely had the tools to ask in the first place? How did we get here? Who, what came before us? What memories were made here? The questions and indeed answers relating to local history can often fall into two extreme ballparks; that of the dusty archive, and that of the perplexing ‘psychohistory’, a study of the psychological motivations of historical events. It can be hard to put one’s self in ‘their’ shoes when one’s shoes are decidedly more comfortable.
And this is where art, and more appropriately theatre, can step into the fray and deliver history, as honestly as it can, and all one must do is watch.
I honestly had no idea what to expect from Edventure’s Legends of Frome. From the advert and descriptions I found I could deduce that a more detailed version of local history could be derived from perhaps the one I received in school, though even then I vividly recall a day walk around my town whence my teacher instructed us to hold our heads up, and for once look at the buildings that had surrounded us this whole time, silent, immovable.
I have never forgotten how their stories and their inhabitants’ stories, going back five centuries in some places were then explained with the visual aid of thankfully intact architecture and period detail. The decrepit round ‘tower’ buildings that dot the reclamation areas, some with trees now growing within them, were gateways to a time when Frome produced the Royal Navy’s Napoleonic garb. A rusted but beautiful streetlamp, on a street heading now nowhere, was the side effect of a local metalworking industry that produced London’s Lady Justice and Boudicca statues.
In a sense all history is interesting, with the right delivery. And Legends of Frome was right.
From the entertaining character (and one finds they must be referred to as characters, living within a play) debating philosophy with a very game visitor at the door of Sun Street Chapel, groups of five were thrust into history as soon as we crossed the threshold.
A man in flat cap and braces gave us name tags evoking war evacuees and instructed us to pin our identities to our coats, before a previously unnoticed wall of cloth opened and we were passed to the next character.
A hunched, haunting woman swathed in cloth shawls explained in unblinking steadiness that her forebears had all weaved, spun cloth goods in this area, that woad was the typical adornment and so one immediately recalled those Napoleonic naval blues.
I am not usually one for audience participation or suspending one’s disbelief, but for this endeavour I was more than happy to just go with it. In fact I was encouraged to so as to see what I found out.
The event was a mix of open plan wandering and staged performance, the latter including traditional songs and dance.
One of the districts was a passageway including a woman surrounded by printers’ tools and materials, telling all about the dozens of print works that once worked Frome. Next door a red room, where a photographer explained the various processes of bringing copy and pictures to a reader. No inch of the church’s interior wasn’t used to some effect. In virtually every nook, cranny and corner a performer, reader or enthusiast delivered history in one form or another. Passageways, streets, false rooms and alcoves were built from whatever must have come to hand, a remarkable feat of engineering in itself. At one point myself and several others mistook a real lavatory room for an exhibit.
In the fashion of Narnia, still inside the church you understand, another wall of blankets opened and our group was hustled through fir trees, through another false wall, and so into a town square! A mayor, or was he a town crier, greeted us and with his arm displayed the local amenities; a baker’s shop, a tea room, several passageways leading into other ‘districts’ of this little old Frome recreation within a church. The result of all this hard work was frankly remarkable. Using the most ordinary of items and arranging in a detailed fashion cardboard and wooden building facades, and with the aid of actors and other performers always hovering, one merely accepted that they were now within a world not too far removed from their own, but crucially apart.
Apart from the more theatrical and colourful displays, mainly from younger participants, two sections that stuck with me were the telling of stories by older, local residents. One was delivered by way of a speaker system within an old shed. As one found themselves looking at the old tools, toys and ornaments that might have filled a life, the Somerset voice of an old lady transferred a family story that may have remained locked in her past were it not for the efforts of local historians in capturing it. One was informed that numerous stories like these were being collected by the organisation. I was reminded of the time my mother asked my grandmother questions about the family with a tape recorder between them, and within one or two sessions a veritable book of pages filled with family trees, tales, rumours and musings was prepared. She died not more than a few years later, and the fruits of an afternoon’s chat over tea have gained more respect from me as more years pass.
The other local resident stood in front of a board covered with old photographs, sketches and maps and asked visitors to sit on a bench as she related stories from her family’s past; crucial facts and figures that in a history text book can seem anodyne. To hear a person describe the temperature, smell and feel of the days that made her though; I could have sat and listened for hours.
After the show, which included food treats such as treacle tart and strawberries with homemade lemonade, all laid out on a huge picnic blanket where most of us visitors sat, I discovered I had to leave. After talking to Ben, one of the organisers, and thanking him for this experience, I wandered back down one of the cramped, dim passageways, past costumed characters and stumbled out into the daylight. Back in Frome. In our world, leaving theirs behind.
With thanks to organiser Ben Macfadyen (pictured)
Article written by Sean Powell
Photography by Joe Hulbert https://www.instagram.com/joehulbert/