This review was originally published in the Egremont 2Day in April 2016
This new play based on the bestselling book by James Rebanks and adapted for the stage by Chris Monks, is a bold venture for Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake. With puppets and local volunteers taking important roles, big risks were taken with this production and it was one that could easily fail.
Of all the plays to be produced this year at TBTL this one was probably the one I least looked forward to. I’ve known or lived in Cumbria for nearly 25 years. My neighbours have been farmers. I’ve woken up to find sheep in my garden and cows chewing my petunias. This is normal life and, of course, we tend to be complacent about the things which surround us every day. Why read the book by a Cumbrian farmer about the life of his family (even if the guy did get a degree in History from Oxford)? Ordinarily, I wouldn’t consider going to see a play about this.
Well, I’m glad the E2D packed me off to review Rebank’s story. The Shepherd’s Life proved to be possibly the best I’ve seen by the Keswick team and that takes some doing.
Martin John’s set design was a beautiful thing to behold even before the performance began, crafting Cumbrian hills like a Greek amphitheatre. A clever use of the latest media technology too helped to bring the Cumbrian outside into the theatre itself.
The acting was superb. Kieran Hill, narrating as the adult Rebanks is convincing as a physically strong farmer, funny and charming as a family man and articulate as an, albeit begrudging, academic. Martin Barrass, playing his father among other roles, was equally impressive and communicated wonderfully the complexity of the relationship between the two. David Fielder outshone the pair however, playing the grandfather ‘Hughie’. This was a man we all would want in our families. Space doesn’t allow to mention all the cast but not one of them was weak and all deserve praise.
Despite such a strong cast however they were all upstaged by the puppets. I knew in advance that the dogs and sheep had been crafted by Jimmy Grimes who had spent three years with the National Theatre’s War Horse and that great care had been taken with their creation. Nevertheless, I dreaded something rather pantomime about the whole thing. My fears were unfounded. From the moment the first sheepdog appeared, I was hooked. I swear the animal was breathing and moving by its own accord. At times, I was so mesmerised by the puppets and their handling that I struggled to concentrate on what was being said on stage. Their handling was wonderfully graceful.
In short, this was a beautiful, moving tribute to a life I have poorly appreciated. Witty and, at times, hilarious, the pace is remarkably fast. Nothing drags. I came away from the performance deeply moved and have every intention of getting hold of Rebank’s book as soon as I can.