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The Garden of England

The Garden of England. Photo: Tim Stubbings
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So what does it mean to live in Kent whether you’ve just arrived or whether, like me, you’ve been here for decades? Last week I went to the Marlowe Theatre to find out.

The Garden of England is The Marlowe’s first community play. It is multifaceted, logistically very complex and uses a cast of 150 local people aged from seven to 80, including a number of recent immigrants.

The experience begins with 45 minutes of atmospheric outdoor immersive promenade theatre in which the Marlowe’s various drama groups – this is the first time they have all worked together – present short scenes about Kent life from the expulsion of the Jews in the thirteenth century to the horrors of being incarcerated in container lorry in an attempt to reach England. Going through immigration formalities at the docks or airport, each of us with a fake passport, was effective as was the Kentish garden, complete with orchard, hops and flowers created for the project by Hadlow College. And young children acted out local folk tales in front of a gypsy caravan near the theatre main entrance.

Then it’s back to the theatre itself for interval refreshments before a 90 minute play written and directed by Andrew Dawson and staged in the studio theatre. It starts outside with the 10 year old Kit Marlowe (Sinclair Perry) and his cobbler father (Chris Smith) marvelling – with occasional dives into Marlovian language – at the frightening mystery of the Northern Lights which were visible from Canterbury in 1574. Perry is a talented child actor and definitely one to watch for. And what a lovely touch – Chris Smith, actually a very reasonable actor, is landlord of The Canterbury Tales pub a few yards away. The theatre brings him a lot of business and last week he was part of it in a whole new way. Terrific too to see actors of all ages and backgrounds working together as equals without status issues relating to age or anything else.

Dawson’s piece presents Marlowe’s life through to the moment he sets off on that fatal journey to Deptford intercut with a 2014 story about a couple and her father who come to live in Canterbury in a (failed) attempt to escape their personal tragedy in London. There’s good work from many people in the all-age cast of 29 but I especially admired Eleanor Wright as Emily, Phillip Glascoe as Henry and Max Mena as Raul. The classroom scenes in particular are beautifully directed.

So one way and another it was a joyful summation of learning, development and collaboration. Katherine Igoe-Ewer is the Marlowe’s Arts Management Trainee, one of three “apprentices” the Marlowe trains at any one time in an initiative launched in 2012. Igoe-Ewer produced The Garden of England and I don’t think she could have had a better chance to demonstrate what she can do. Another excellent strand of learning.

It may have been the Marlowe’s first community play but I’m absolutely positive it won’t be the last.

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