String – the Musical

 

String – the Musical is a brand new, specially-commissioned musical set in Hailsham and the surrounding area and is probably the most ambitious project the festival has undertaken in its 18 year history.

String – the Musical was most recently performed at the Grove Theatre, Eastbourne in March 2024 as part of Hailsham Festival Extra

It is very much hoped that String – the Musical will return to te stage in 2025.

Images by Verity Webb

Review of String – the Musical at Hailsham Pavilion, 2022

Not every town has its own musical.  But Hailsham does!  And last weekend “String” brought the town alive at the Pavilion before near-sell out audiences across three shows.  Due to this success, talks are continuing about taking “String” to Eastbourne, and the possibility of recording the songs for commercial CD release.

After the general hubbub of people arriving at the Pavilion, finding their seats, greeting friends and waving at others they think they know, the evening’s entertainment kicked off when the hand-picked instrumental ensemble ploughed headlong into the overture. During this time, narrator John Bowler, known for his acting roles in television shows, with “The Bill” and “Casualty” among them, walked on stage. He then guided us, with a smile, through the evening, while on occasion became so animated during some of the scenes, that he was spotted lip syncing to songs.

This brand new specially-commissioned musical, aptly named “String”, due to the town’s industrial manufacture of rope, bound together different strands of time into a central love story that runs through one Hailsham woman’s life.  A young Harriet (played by Ruby Edwards) and Tom (played by Tyler Sargent) set the pace with “Hey Cupid Are You Working Today?” which led into the stunning “Last Train On The Cuckoo Line”, a duet between the talented Abbie Marsden and David Watts in their respective roles of divorcee Joan Sanderson and Peter, her first love.

There’s a unique vocal exchange between the adult Harriet (Marcia Bellamy) and her now deceased (ghost) husband Tom (Chris Parke) in “This House”.  She wants to move on: he doesn’t want her to, telling her so in no uncertain terms!  However, for many people the highlight of this section was the introduction of the farm boys and their loud, pounding rendition of the powerful “Sussex Boys We Wunt Be Druv”, pushing home the pointlessness of war that took so many lives. Leading this rousing reprise of patriotism was actor Steve Scott, in his role of local hero Nelson Carter VC. It’s pretty heavy stuff.

The Musical’s creator Tony Biggin has his finger on the pulse when it comes to composing softly textured melodies that sweep and flow, providing the perfect backdrop to leading librettist, Stephen Plaice’s sensitive lyrics.  This was especially so when listening to the hard-hitting “The Day That Sussex Died”, a ballad of considerable note with a choir adding a fullness to the song’s sentiments.  This cunning mixture of music, blending the mood of the 1st World War with sixties pop and contemporary love ballads, was an ingenious move by Tony Biggin, whose creative skills range from university lecturer, leader of county music services and acclaimed international composer.

Through song and music, the story of the two young lovers, Harriet and Tom oscillated, as each overcome one struggle after the other, until the closing “This Town (Ties That Bind)” brings it all together, evoking the pride these people have in their town – and that town is Hailsham!

Audience Reviews

To See a World in a Grain of Sand
String! at the Grove Theatre, Eastbourne

This review is being written to express my experience of seeing String! – a musical by Tony Biggin and librettist Stephen Plaice – at the Grove Theatre on Friday last. As a member of the compact but sold-out audience I had very little idea what to expect. What transpired was a work of supreme calibre, and which one simply could not believe was being staged in such a petite venue. I am guessing now but this may be what billionaire’s children feel like when Adele or Beyonce play the tent in the back garden at their eighteenth.

But – the top-drawer talent aside – there was something more. To say String! is about Hailsham would be to invoke the same critical solecism which avers that, say, Julius Caesar is about the Italian capital two millennia ago. For the themes – as this play might have it: the shreds, the strands, the yarns. the flax, the fibres. the strings – are twisted and braided together to explore and, in fact, depict the fabric of English society. Narratively, it is both non-linear and impressionistic but the binding material is that precious and all-too-rare elixir: the authentic and the local.

The Great War is present. How could it not be? The numbers connected to the Battle of the Somme are always kind of surprising every time one re-encounters them. I recently heard the following formulation: more British casualties on the first three days than the total number of Americans killed in WWI, Korea and Vietnam put together, for instance. Steve Scott’s doughty Nelson Carter VC would not count among the numbers of this million men massacre because the Somme Offensive began officially on the 1st July 1916. Nelson Carter was mortally wounded, winning a VC in the process, aged 29, at Richebourg l’Avoue – up in Artois – the day before on the 30th June. On this day, within just five hours at the Battle of the Boar’s Head, the Royal Sussex lost 17 officers and 349 men. Over a thousand more were injured. As Plaice’s libretto has it, Christ was not there on ‘the day that Sussex died’.

Those of us who live in Sussex may know that someone – presumably the notorious Richard Beeching – restructured (closed) many railway lines in the 1960s. The play takes us to the last journey made along the Cuckoo Line between Hailsham and Eastbourne. This, of course, could sound winsome and parochial but here it does not, principally due to the implicit modesty of the play’s sensibility. Contextualised as a fleeting moment in the young romance of the central characters –Harriet and Tom – the poetic effect is not absurd melodrama about something so prosaic but instead evokes a whisper of the changes wrought on our towns – let’s say, our lives – by extrinsic forces over which we have minimal awareness and understanding, and zero control.

Ruby Edwards who plays Harriet at age eighteen offers a demur, rational, unsilly girl falling for Tyler Sargent’s lively, besotted Tom. Fast-forward to the present and Tom is dead, Chris Parke’s watchful ghost still present in the home. I remarked earlier in the review that the talent here is of the highest quality. Marcia Bellamy is a mezzo sopranist of note and her bereaved Harriet is the heart of the play. ‘This house, Tom’ which is sung in the depleted marital home resounds with an almost unbearable poignancy combined with a fortitude and resilience which verges on the heroic.
By way of dazzling contrast is her friend Joan who is the more liberated, both morally and maritally, of the two. Joan positively encourages Harriet to join her on the dating scene. Harriet is naturally full of apprehension and hesitation about taking things further with Jozik Kotz’s mild-mannered Robin Foulkes.
This is an enormously talented ensemble – cast and musicians – working with material by two inspired and adroit craftsmen in Plaice and Biggin who actually have something complex, nuanced and powerfully romantic to say. A sun has come out over Hailsham.

Five stars isn’t enough.

– Dan Hill

String at Grove Theatre Eastbourne is a clever and uplifting show, full of tenderness, gentle humour and history. Starting in 1967 with Young Harriet and Young Tom in a ‘will-she? won’t she?’ exchange at the bus stop, the audience is soon swept into the present day to meet older Harriet, newly bereaved and as yet unable to leave her home, full of Tom, full of love and memories.

Harriet’s friend Joan is on a different path and their search for fulfilment in a more mature stage of life is both funny and moving. There are not enough stories about women of this age, and I applaud String for giving them some limelight. Meanwhile, in another strand of the tale, the losses of the Great War are remembered through the portrayal of real-life hero Nelson Carter, awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at the Battle of Boar’s Head.

Weaving together the three timelines of an accomplished piece of writing, the note-perfect cast tell the story in the best possible way – revealing big themes and important ideas through tiny human moments. I loved it.

– Jane Branson

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