We’ve never had our home flooded – thank bleep! And we’ve never had to experience something as shattering as the Somerset floods of 2013/14. The unrelenting rain gave new meaning to the word torrential. The most rain we’ve had in England for 230 years saw the Levels become lakes, businesses ruined and communities frightened for their safety… with some trapped, then evacuated and unable to get back into their homes for months and months on end. It was a controversial moment in the history of our county too – could what happened have been prevented? Would dredging have made the difference?
Well, Wassail Theatre’s new show ‘Reclaimed’ explores the experiences of those life changing months and the fight to reclaim what was suddenly taken away. It’s inspired by true events, with the Wassail team working closely with the people, communities and organisations impacted by the flooding. Associate Producer Emma Vickery was also personally affected and as Nick White, Wassail’s Artistic Director, tells us:
“We hope we’ve explored how communities are strengthened or fractured by the unexpected, and what it means to be British in times of crisis”.
When we hear that, we’re really curious to see how they approach it because for a start, an evening with Wassail Theatre is never what you’d expect… and we mean that in the best way possible! :) These are the guys that brought us the unforgettable Somerset Charabanc after all (immersive theatre on the back of a horse and cart, travelling across our beautiful county).
Between that show and now, we’ve almost forgotten about the surprises they always have up those theatrical sleeves but when we open the door to The David Hall Arts Centre in South Petherton, we’re reminded of that pretty quickly…
Were we expecting a traditional stage? Well, the room is set up for a community get-together – chairs in a circle with tables in the middle of it, where we sit and play table-top bowling and cards and wait for whatever’s going to happen next!
Without giving too much away, for one night only the audience becomes part of the fictional village of Newton Fitzbarrow - a community about to be caught up in the very worst of the flooding, all gathering together in the village hall as the water rises and we decide what to do next.
In this “safe space”, we drink tea, huddle together under sleeping bags, join in with a quick bit of boxercise/freestyle dancing to keep the spirits up…
… and as the evening progresses, we completely forget we came along to ‘watch’ a performance. Every one of us is part of the community and within minutes, we feel as though we’ve known the characters our whole lives.
Charlie (or Char!), played by Lizzie Stables, coordinates happenings in the village hall. She brings us all together, makes sure everyone’s got a cuppa, (with the help of Richard, played by Nick White) and she tries her best to stay cheerful and strong for everyone else, as situations both humourous and horrific unfold before us.
She’s basically the rock… and throughout the evening you really come to depend on her, so when she finally hears that she can’t get back into her own home, it’s genuinely heartbreaking to witness.
Early doors, we find out there’s been a double booking at the hall and Naomi from the Environment Agency (played by Alys Metcalf), turns up.
You could cut the atmosphere with any old piece of cutlery as Naomi, with her clipped voice and detached business-like manner, goes about brusquely moving us all to set up ‘bronze control’ – where she believes the emergency services will meet and coordinate their efforts.
When it becomes obvious that the water is now just too high, the situation too dangerous and no-one is on their way to help us, accusations start to fly. As an audience, we’re then caught up in how the hopelessness of the situation, combined with fear and anger, affects people in crisis. Alys plays it brilliantly and we can’t help but feel sorry for someone who’s trying the best she possibly can, in a situation where she’s lost the control she craves.
There’s another side to Naomi though. She gets one of biggest laughs of the night when we find out she’s never been to Taunton (I know!!) but never fear… Char gets her to agree to a night out at the Cosy Club when all this is over, so we definitely need to see those photos on Facebook! ;)
Anyway, the thing that struck us the most about Reclaimed is the way that comedy and tragedy are brilliantly knitted together throughout… and no character sums that up more than Tyler, played by the awesome Jac Husebo.
I guess you might say he’s the village Jac the lad (see what we did there? ;)). He's big-hearted and bonkers – but there's an anger simmering just below the surface that inevitably spills over when the flooding pushes him to his own limits.
It’s definitely an emotional rollercoaster connecting with Tyler, as it is with the whole show – one minute you’re giggling away at his made-up stories of being a decorated boxing champion and the next, you’re totally floored when something precious to him and the whole village is cruelly taken away. That’s the beauty of the production though – it’s brave, honest and the highs and lows genuinely get under your skin.
Tyler’s scenes with local farmer Colin, played by Josh Marriott, (who’s home is lost to the water and who understandably just can’t take any more), are incredibly moving.
The emotion in Colin’s performance touches everyone in the hall, but we laugh the loudest with Ty, shed a tear with him and are genuinely shocked when some of his prejudices surface.
Nitin, a Sikh charity worker played flawlessly by Riz Meedin, brings those to the fore when he arrives at the village hall against all the odds, delivering much needed help – and samosas!
Nitin’s character is inspired by the incredible real life efforts of a group of volunteers from Khalsa Aid - a Slough-based charity that usually helps out in foreign disaster zones. They came to Somerset after seeing the devastation on TV and knew that people here were in dire need of support.
As soon as Nitin arrives at our village hall camp, he’s a calming influence – and although there are some very uncomfortable moments when he clashes with Tyler...
... our communal feelings of dread are largely replaced by the hope he brings, as the waters continue to rise.
When the show ends, we actually feel disappointed… but only because we want more! ;) We’ve grown so close to the characters in the time we’ve been part of Newton Fitzbarrow, that we’re desparate to know how it turns out for them all – and that’s a true sign of theatre created with heart.
Our take on it all is that Director, Jesse Briton, and the whole Wassail cast and crew have put together a truly powerful show that's captivating, challenging, emotional and funny. It doesn’t shy away from controversial issues and handles them with sensitivity, humour and humility. You feel priveleged to be part of the audience and part of those memories that’ve been shared by the people of Somerset who lived through the devastation.
We’d see the show again in a heartbeat.
If you’d like to experience Reclaimed, it’s currently touring throughout Somerset with one night in Bristol. To check out venues, times and prices, just click here.
Reclaimed opened in two of the communities most affected by the flooding - those communities who shared their own personal experiences with the team. You can watch some of their reactions to the show on Wassail Theatre’s Twitter feed here and you can keep in touch with Wassail on their Facebook and Instagram pages too.
PHOTOGRAPHY CREDITS: All photos by Paul Blakemore (excluding photos 2 (BBC), 1, 3 & 5 (us!).