A Time to Keep
Playwrights: Stephanie Dale and David Edgar
Performance venue: The Thomas Hardye School
First performance: 16 November 2007
Play Office: South Grove Cottage, Trinity Street, Dorchester DT1 1TU
Director: Jon Oram
Director’s Assistant: Kate McGregor
Designer: Ariane Gastambide
Assidstant Designer: Chryssanthy Kofidou
Music director: Tim Laycock
Lighting director: Stephane Cantin
Stage manager: Cath Hylton
Play officer: Sarah Peterkin
Outreach: Polly Shepherd
The play is set in Dorchester, in the summer of 1804, against the background of the threat of invasion by Napoleon. It begins at the end, with King George the Third, the Queen and their daughters arriving at Dorchester on 7 September to see a play. The play's prologue is delivered by Jenny Hodge, the producer of the play, whose subject is great events in the life of the town. Before we get on to the play proper, we flash back to its origins ...
1) Monday 2 July. Chaired by the major (John Manfield), a town meeting is held to discuss how Dorchester might contribute to the preparations to resist invasion. A local schoolmistress, Jenny Hodge, suggests that the town present a play about its history. This would serve to occupy the troops currently resident in the barracks, raise funds for the war effort, promote Dorchester (not least, against Weymouth) and sustain morale. Concerned about the cost and appropriateness of the play, the leading figures of the town postpone a decision on supporting the play. Meanwhile, former mayor Nathaniel Stickland and his wife share their worries about their wayward daughter, Mary, with Nathaniel's brother, Robert.
2) Tuesday 17 July. Late afternoon. In her school, Jenny Hodge auditions (flanked by Miss Elizabeth Meech and Herny Lee, son of the theatre manager). Often, the audition team discover that recruits to the play have unexpected talents. The enthusiasm of young women for the project is increased when four dashing officers arrive from the barracks (two of them, being German, pose casting problems). Robert's uppity daughter, Henrietta, and her limp cousin William are both recruited to the play. A mysterious young woman, unnoticed by anyone, loiters on the edge of the scene.
3) Around 6.30pm on the same day. Elizabeth Meech's sister Maria is hosting her usual - and stultifyingly boring - evening of whist. The spirited and wayward Mary Stickland (20 years old and Henrietta's cousin) is in reluctant attendance. Generally opposed to the play, the company is largely won round when Henrietta arrives with the news of the number of eligible young officers who are being offered parts. Mary's mother is thrilled to learn that Mary's cousin William (a suitor for Mary, approved by everyone except Mary herself) is in the play. To her annoyance, Mary is cajolled into volunteering. Claiming a slight headache, she leaves the party early.
4) Later the same evening. In fact, Mary has a secret tryst. She has met and fallen in love with a young man called Isaac Gulliver, who has dared her to meet him in a rough inn outside Dorchester. Isaac is the son of a notorious, now retired smuggler, a guest at the wedding of two other south Dorset smugglers. Much to Isaac's surprise, Mary turns up half-way through the festivities. Initially scared by this strange environment, she becomes seduced by tales of smuggling derring-do, seeing it as a thrilling alternative to her dull existence (and an even duller future, married to William). By contrast, Isaac wants to escape from smuggling into Mary's respectable world. A third escapee bursts into the scene: a 14-year old apprentice called Billy Lawrence, on the run from his employer, wanting to join the navy. Ever inventive, the smugglers come up with solutions: Billy is taken on as a sweeper and bottle washer in exchange for a safe hideaway; and Isaac decides to volunteer for the play, as a cover for seeing Mary in the future.
5) Saturday 11 August. An outdoor rehearsal on a hot afternoon in Maumbury Rings. The production is hitting a number of problems: Jenny Hodge has lost her German officers, who have been relocated to Radipole, other officers are delayed by sudden mobilisations, Catherine Manfield the wardrobe mistress has no materials to work with for costumes (due to the embargo on imports from the continent). The outdoor rehearsal is witnessed by labourers and indeed mendicants, resentful at the Dorchester landowners who are doing well out of the war at their expense. Finally, objections are raised to Jenny's treatment of one of the events in the play, the trial and execution (in Maumbury Rings) of the spirited and wayward Mary Channing, who, after a wild youth of dancing and debauchery, poisoned her worthy but dull husband Thomas Channing in 1705. Members of the cast of this scene (particularly Rev. Giles Meech, brother to the Meech sisters) are concerned that the scene is unduly sympathetic to Mary Channing - suggesting she might be innocent, or even justified. Mortified by the departure of the Geman Officers, Henrietta Stickland walks out and Mary is promoted to the role, opposite William as the luckless Thomas Channing, whose marital incompatibility is strangely resonant of the difficulties between Mary and William themselves. Mary has a fateful idea: surely, Isaac can provide the production with necessary materials?
6) Wednesday 15 August - the countryside, near Dorchester, lit by the light of the full moon. Helped by Mary, Isaac is digging up contraband silks, satins and lace to supply to the play. A pleasant, portly man in his 50s approaches and Isaac and Mary have to improvise their reasons for digging a trench at this time of night. Isaac is developing a secret and revolutionary irrigation system which interests his visitor hugely. The man is then joined by his wife, daughters and servants, who have been waiting while the wheel of their carriage is remounted. It turns out that the man is George the Third, on his way back to Weymouth from a visit to Bridport. The King is led back to his carriage. He was alarmingly close to Isaac's contraband. Isaac explains to Mary that the success of the plan to supply the play with contraband on the backing of a "Venturer", a distinguished Dorchester citizen who secretly finances the smugglers' operations.
7) From Friday 17th August to Friday 31 August, a system for supplying not only the play but the players swings into action. First of all, Isaac supplies Catherine Manfield the wardrobe mistress with satins and lace. Rev Giles Meech's wife Charlotte asks where the lace came from and wonders if there might be some for her daughter's upcoming christening. Other members of the company have urgent need for brandy, claret and playing cards.
We see the entire procedure, from the landing of the contraband via its secretion, then its distribution and finally its use at balls, family evenings and card parties. But amid all this William has grown suspicious of Isaac and his relationship with Mary. He has sight of a pouch of gold coins and a letter in French (in fact from Mary). The same evening, the King - visiting Dorchester to inspect troops at Maiden Castle in the morning - suddenly appears in the midst of the rehearsals. Ever keen on the theatre (and boring his daughters by insisting on seeing the same play many times), the King agrees to attend the opening performance of the Dorchester Play the following week. The first act ends with a rousing patriotic song.
1) The following day (Saturday 1 September). In a recap of the situation before the interval, groups of the towns citizens sing of the continuing national peril while Henreitta dreams of her lost officer, Mary frets about her future with Isaac, and Willam plots their downfall. Towards the end of the scene, Billy Lawrence is recaptured both by his employer and officers who have recruited him to the army. He is returned to his apprenticeship.
2) Wednesday 5 September (two days later). A late rehearsal of the play is interrupted by excise men who have been tipped off by William about the presence of a smuggler\spy in the ranks of the company. When they first arrive everyone panics - most people in the play have received contraband and some have it concealed about their persons. Isaac is told to turn out his pockets, and money is found. But there is also a letter in French which can be read as coming from or to a spymaster. There is huge surprise when Isaac is arrested not as a smuggler with the proceeds of contraband but as a spy with the proceeds of espionage. Mary knows that one word from her would free Isaac from arrest as a spy but would implicate many of her relatives as receivers of smuggled goods. Isaac looks at her desperately as he is led away. Mary realises that Isaac has been betrayed by her cousin William. She is distraught, and Elizabeth Meech guesses that she is in love with Isaac and suspects that the spying charge is trumped up. Elizabeth takes Mary in hand and promises to help her resolve the crisis.
3) Thursday 6 September (the next day). Elizabeth Meech takes Mary Stickland to visit Isaac in prison. The prison is run corruptly by Mrs Andrews, who uses it as a means of feathering her family nest. A 10-year-old child - daughter of a servant fired from the Meech household for thieving - has been forced to act as a servant to Mrs Andrews. Isaac is furious with Mary for allowing his arrest. He is to be arraigned before the magistrate tomorrow and he knows he can save his neck by shopping the genteel classes of the town, including the unknown "Venturer". Mary realises she has to choose between Isaac and her family. Appalled by conditions in the prison, Elizabeth Meech wants at least to give something to the ten-year-old child (Rose) - she gives her a red silk scarf which she ties into the shape of a doll.
4) The evening of the same day. Along with Catherine Manfield and Mary, Elizabeth Meech seeks out the smugglers in their inn and insists they rescue Isaac.
5) Friday 7 September (the next day). Isaac is taken to the home of the magistrate (the mayor, Richard Manfield, Catherine's husband) to be arraigned. The informal court is attended by other officers and dignatories who have indirectly benefitted from Isaaac's contraband distribution. Before Isaac can fulfill his threat to shop the citizenry and expose the Venturer, the smugglers break in and rescue him. He is thrown into the back of a hijacked dairy cart, in which Billy Lawrence is making another attempt to escape his apprenticeship and join up with the dragoons.
6) A few minutes later, in open country, the dairy cart is in collision with a grand carriage - it's the King and his entourage, heading for Dorchester, on a visit that will include seeing the performance of the Dorchester Play later that day. Chasing excise men arrive to arrest Isaac. However, the King recognises him as the farmer who invented the splendid new irrigation system. Clearly this is a case of mistaken identity. The King is also impressed with the patriotic zeal of Isaac's travelling companion, Billy Lawrence, and sends him off to his new regiment. The King insists on giving Isaac a lift to Dorchester, and affords him the protection of a senior equerry for the rest of the day.
7) That evening: a few minutes before the play is due to start. Jenny Hodge is in costume to play Isaac's part; William is begging Mary to forgive him and offering her a life of comfort and ease. Protected by the king's equerry until the end of the evening, Isaac arrives and offers her the opposite - to give up everything and fly away with him. Mary finds herself joined first by Jenny and then by the mysterious young woman only they know is there. As the curtain rises, Mary, Isaac and Jenny make startling discoveries about themselves and each other.
8) The climax of the play: tied to the stake in Maumbury Rings, Mary Channing (played by Mary) sees a vision of her murdered husband Thomas Channing (played by William) and her lover (played by Isaac) and speaks through the characters to them both. The play-within-the-play ends to huge applause. But our play ends with Mary making the most difficult decision of her young life.