Keeping a festival going year after year is an enormous task. You plan the programme, raise the money, scatter the publicity, sell the tickets, stage the concerts…and then it all has to start again for next year. Any outfit that can do this for over forty years earns my admiration, and amongst these is Calne Music and Arts Festival in Wiltshire. I first visited there in the mid-1970s, and I was there again last week to see ‘This Woman’s Work’, a show devised and performed by an all female cast of A-level drama students from the town’s John Bentley School.
Plays written for young casts are fairly commonplace amongst Theatre in Education offerings by major theatre companies. But stage pieces written by under-18s and presented at this level of achievement are rather fewer, and it was gripping to experience the actual, unedited thoughts of this much-discussed demographic. At a guess I might have thought we were going to hear about body image, drugs, social media harrassment. And passingly we did, but by very unexpected routes. Instead, the group focused on the hazard and prevalence, as they perceived it, of having their present and future life stories stereotyped by wider society, thereby limiting their freedom to grow and transcend these limiting narratives.
Most strikingly, the performers included songs (sung by themselves, and accompanied by a groovy trumpet/cajon/keyboard trio) made famous by great female performers of the past – from Peggy Seeger (who's still touring the UK this autumn) to Lady Gaga. Particularly poignant was Who knows where the time goes by Sandy Denny, whose sadly premature death was nearly forty years ago. Confirming the evening’s theme, we reflected afterwards that many great women vocalist-songwriters have collided with some pretty bad stereotypes, the brilliant Amy Winehouse being one of the more recent we have lost. A more cheerful reflection was that so many of the short songs we had just heard perfectly encapsulated a complex emotional state, more effectively than the same words would have done without music. I hoped that some of the evening’s talented performers would go on to express their admirably nuanced observations in song form.