Over the past decade or so, there seems to have been a growing trend for writing in coffee shops. Whether this has been popularised by J K Rowling’s accounts of writing the first couple of Harry Potter books in The Elephant House in Edinburgh, or just a knock-on effect of the growing coffee shop culture, I’m not sure.

I like it though, this gradual graduation of the writing process into the public space. No more the weary novelist, cramped alone in his tiny attic room, shut away from the world as he squeezes words from his brain with only a few spiders for company. No more the lonely poet, tramping verse across the mountaintops, singing them mournfully back to the wind. (Well, maybe still here and there in Cumbria…)

Writing in coffee shops in Cumbria - Brew Brothers, Kendal
Brew Brothers, Kendal

Writing in coffee shops brings writing out into the open. For me, it stops is being some secretive, mystery thing that unusual-looking people do in the privacy of their own homes, and turns it into something public. Oh, you see that woman over there with the flat white and a Mac? She’s an author. That man with the doodled notebook? He’s writing poems.

I think (or maybe I hope) that when people see writers writing like this, it reaffirms the fact that writing is real work. I think that sometimes, non-writers underestimate just how hard writing can be. After all, we just sit at a table and make stuff up, right? What’s so hard about that? It probably doesn’t even take very long. Writers probably spend most of their time sleeping or practising their autographs…right?

If you’re a writer, this attitude is probably pretty familiar. If you’ve shared a house with someone who isn’t themselves a writer / artist, you’ve probably had to fight tooth and nail to protect your writing time, and stop it morphing into washing up time, or putting-the-bins-out time. You’ve possibly also had to put up with comments like, ‘Are you busy? Or are you just writing?’ I actually had a friend who asked me: ‘Are you working or writing today?’ I think my response was, ‘Umm, both…?’

At least when it’s out in the open people can see you’re working. Well, sort of. I mean, I’m not saying that people can see you at the coal face, because for writers most of the work does and always will take place inside our heads – but at least people can see you’re putting in the hours.

Cakes & Ale bookshop cafe, Carlisle, Cumbria
Cakes & Ale, Carlisle

Writing in coffee shops is also a good way for me to shake my ideas up a bit. There’s nothing like a change of setting to help with a change of mind, or a bit of people watching to bring in some added inspiration. If I’m stuck on what to write, I tend to do one of two things: read a book, or migrate to a cafe. Sometimes I do both.

Not that I never write at home. I do. I write at my kitchen table, at my desk, on my sofa, in bed… Sometimes while I’m cooking I’ll write standing up at the kitchen counter. But sometimes at home I can feel too conspicuous. Which is a weird thought, since I live on my own – who is there to be conspicuous to? But at home, everything clamours for my attention, because everything is my responsibility. There are a million other jobs that need doing, from hoovering to re-stacking the log basket to dusting the tops of the kitchen cupboards.

Whenever I’m even remotely considering dusting the tops of the kitchen cupboards, I know I must be procrastinating, and it’s definitely time for a change of scene.

For me, writing in a coffee shop can help me feel like a ‘real’ writer. Going to a specific place, like going to an office, can help remind me that, like any job, I have to put the hours in. It can spur me on mentally and give me a fresh creative canvas. When I want to get some serious writing done, they can give me a break from the thousand other things that try to hold me back.

Also, I just quite like coffee.

Abbey Coffee Shop, Shap, Cumbria - best cafes for writing in
Abbey Coffee Shop, Shap

These are my 5 favourite coffee shops for writing in in Cumbria:

1: Abbey Coffee Shop, Shap

The Abbey Coffee Shop in Shap is my local. If I’m stuck and it’s a nice day, it’s just a 15 minute walk across the fields. Perfect for instilling that freshness of thinking.

There’s no wifi at the Abbey Coffee Shop – it’s a ‘talk to people rather than phones’ kind of place, with a really friendly, local feel. I don’t think I’ve ever been in there without seeing someone I know – something that can be great for the lonely writer. (Stuck on my own in that attic with the spiders? No thanks…) The only issue with this (for writing, at least) is that it can get crazily busy around the middle of the day, which means that taking up a table by yourself with nothing but a latte and a notebook for 2 hours isn’t really acceptable. But get there early when they open, and it’s great – not to mention the fact that the freshly baked scones will still be warm.

It’s also run by locals, so it’s supporting local business: my friend Rowan, who I went to primary school with, and her dad, who makes the world’s best lamb & apricot casserole. No exaggeration.

2: Brew Brothers, Kendal

I once saw Brew Brothers described as ‘an urban cafe in a rural setting’, which is a description I took issue with, as I don’t see Brew Brothers as an ‘urban’ cafe at all. For one thing, it has a giant blown up photo of a sheep covering one whole wall. I think the person who wrote that description was confusing urban with hipster, because Brew Brothers is a very hipster place. Eclectic chairs, an old piano stool, pretty mismatched china, water served in jam jars… Basically it’s my favourite kind of style in a nutshell.

Like the Abbey Coffee Shop, it can get super busy during the middle of the day, but that’s because the meals and cakes are both delicious. Plus it’s about the only cafe I know which offers a big choice of different flavours of chai latte.

Brew Brothers cafe, Kendal, Cumbria - best cafes for writing in
Brew Brothers, Kendal

3: Cakes & Ale, Carlisle

Cakes & Ale is attached to Bookends, the independent book shop in Carlisle, which itself is attached to Bookcase: the biggest and best warren of a second-hand book shop I think I’ve ever been in. Mum & I once wandered apart in here, and she had to phone me to see where I was, because apparently she’d been calling my name and I hadn’t heard. Turns out we were still on the same floor, which shows how big the bookshop is.

The books seem to spill over into the cafe, too. If I’m stuck on what to write, there’ll always be something interesting to read in Cakes & Ale. Or I can just listen to whatever’s on the turntable of the record player, or order another yummy cake. (Cake seems to be a developing theme in these cafes. Just so you know, that isn’t a coincidence.)

4: The Yard Kitchen, Penrith

If you’re looking for an inspirational place and you can’t find a cafe attached to a bookshop, find one attached to a salvage yard. The Yard Kitchen oozes vintage salvage style, from the wood-burner in the back room, to the neon sign that slightly older Penrith folk will recognise from one of the now-closed nightclubs. There’s also an upstairs snug, which is a great space for writing when you want to get away from it all a bit. In the summer, there’s also an outside seating area, with views across town to the beacon.

Oh, and in case you haven’t guessed already, the cakes are amazing. Especially the scones.

5: The Wild Strawberry, Keswick

Of these coffee shops, the Wild Strawberry is the one I go to least. No reflection on the cafe itself, but just because I don’t often find myself in Keswick with a couple of hours looking for somewhere to do some work. But when I do, this is generally the place I gravitate towards. (Though I avoid going at all during school holidays, especially in August, when Keswick turns into a great big tourist trap.)

Downstairs, The Wild Strawberry is pretty bustling, but I like to secrete myself away somewhere upstairs, where there’s less pressure on you to leave as soon as your coffee cup is empty. Also, they have good cakes (of course) and nice milkshakes.

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Oh, and if you have any other great cafe recommendations, do let me know – I’d love to expand my repertoire!

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Sheep and sheepdog puppets, a trip to Beatrix Potter’s farm, and an old shepherd arguing with Wordsworth and Wainwright: next time somebody asks me about Cumbria, I will direct them to The Shepherd’s Life

~ Dominic Houareau (community cast), Janine Birkett (Jill / Jean / Mrs Heelis), Joseph Richardson (Pupeteer / Joe / Ronnie / Ewan Goode); photo by Keith Pattison ~
~ Dominic Houareau (community cast), Janine Birkett (Jill / Jean / Mrs Heelis), Joseph Richardson (Pupeteer / Joe / Ronnie / Ewan Goode); photo by Keith Pattison ~

 

‘The past and the present live alongside each other in our working lives.’ This is certainly true of The Shepherd’s Life, which combines traditional theatrical devices (with some of Kieran Hill’s speeches almost having the tenure of Shakespearean soliloquies) with what feels overall like a thoroughly modern play.  Chris Monks’ adaptation of James Rebanks’ bestseller is not only a successful adaptation of the book, but also a deservedly ambitious play in its own right.

Although Rebanks’ book was only published last year, the play had the feeling of a folk tale.

Monks’ adaptation beautifully encapsulated that sense of a past stretching back through the generations, and the deep connection to the land that it brings.

But watching the play also felt like I was participating in a communal oral history, perhaps because of a shared contemporary knowledge of Cumbria, and because of shared memory.

This is a play on home turf, where the field of theatre extends from the stage into the auditorium, and then out of the doors and up onto the fells. Consequently, the laughter that rippled through the audience was often a knowing laughter, born of experience, and there was an audible collective shudder at the mention of Foot and Mouth.

But it was not just the Cumbrian element of the story that made this play relatable. At its heart, The Shepherd’s Life is a story of family, of love for life, and of home; like all good theatre, the story it tells is at once unique and universal.

All members of the cast were strong and versatile (with nearly all taking three roles), and were supported by a fantastic community cast. Particular mention goes to the three children, who held their own alongside some outstanding professional actors.

Kieran Hill (as James) was the backbone of the production, bearing the narrative of the show with ease. It was through the development of James’ relationships with his father Tom (Martin Barrass) and grandfather Hughie (David Fielder), that the depth of family history was felt, and the true importance of the farm was conveyed, while Martin Johns’ set and Andrew J Lindsay’s lighting design brought the vast expanse of fells and sky into the main auditorium.

During a memorable scene at school, James talks about the dangers of seeming too clever, and the importance of being ‘quietly smart’. This may be all well and good or the young James, but Theatre by the Lake should definitely not be ‘quietly smart’ about The Shepherd’s Life; instead, their cleverness should be shouted from the mountaintops, because they have produced a truly remarkable show.

~ Herdwick Flock operated by community cast, Kieran Hill (James); photo by Keith Pattison ~
~ Herdwick Flock operated by community cast, Kieran Hill (James); photo by Keith Pattison ~

 

A late summer evening: a glass of Pimms in your hand and an open picnic hamper at your feet. Enter the Three Inch Fools.

The Three Inch Fools: outdoor touring Shakespeare (outdoor theatre) performing 'The Tempest'On the surface, director James Hyde’s production of The Tempest appears simple: touring Shakespeare returning to its roots, performed by a small company in the open air, with minimal set and few elaborate props or costumes.

As Shakespeare’s most temporally and geographically contained play, The Tempest suits this pared down treatment, and it takes very little for the Three Inch Fools to transform the performance space into Prospero’s magical island, with clever use of parts of a tepee to create the storm-tossed ship.

In fact, the whole performance is filled with similarly clever use of space, and a complex weaving together of actors, music and song, to give an overall illusion of simplicity.

Composer Stephen Hyde’s music certainly added to this illusion. His beautiful melodies haunt the play, infusing the drama with a pagan, ethereal feel. This is Shakespeare meets The Wicker Man, as Ariel’s unsettling lullabies draw the characters further into Prospero’s net. The lingering and evocative score is one of the strongest elements of this memorable production.

The production is also not without a very talented cast. Joe Skelton’s Prospero holds both characters and audience alike under his spell, commanding his scenes with palpable stage presence. With the help of Nat Spence, a powerful and yet beautifully vulnerable Ariel, his control over the other characters becomes utterly believable – particularly when he stands in the wings, confidently observing the blossoming tender relationship between Miranda (Emma Hewitt) and Ferdinand (Josh Maddison).

However, as in any good production of Shakespeare, plenty is made of the play’s rogue elements, too: the drunken sailors and their adoption of the island’s only native, Caliban (Wilson Smith). Smith adopts a fantastic physicality that utterly transforms him, into a piteous and occasionally disturbing Caliban.

This is one of a number of well-executed physical aspects in the play, including Ferdinand’s rescue from the shipwreck, and, of course, the antics of the two drunks: Stephano (Richard Leeming) and Trinculo (Stephen Hyde). Hyde’s more sombre drunken behaviour superbly complemented Leeming’s wild and elaborate gestures, spreading hilarity throughout the audience. In fact, both actors were so convincing that is was as though they and Smith had been swigging from a real bottle backstage.

Throughout the production, light summer comedy (as well as the play’s darker comedy) was perfectly pitched against the play’s more sinister back story. Under Hyde’s direction, both elements earned their place entirely, to create an entertaining and moving piece of theatre.

This is definitely a company to watch – and then to keep watching, again and again.

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More about the Three Inch Fools on their website.

The Three Inch Fools: outdoor touring theatre performing Shakespeare's The Tempest

Shelagh Stephenson’s Enlightenment is an unsettling play – one which works on the fears of our imaginations, and the terror of our own smallness in an increasingly global world.

~ Cate Hamer (Lia): photo by Keith Pattison ~
~ Cate Hamer (Lia): photo by Keith Pattison ~

It is this sense of individual insignificance that gives Zoë Waterman’s production such a powerful and contemporary feel – this could be anyone’s house, anyone’s family. In a world where solutions are always just a phone call or the touch of a button away, the sense of these characters’ helplessness pervades the play like a bad dream.

Cate Hamer is a strong central figure as Lia, the mother desperately trying to hold onto herself in her search for answers about her missing son. Through her powerful portrayal of a woman on the edge, we see the struggle for control that plagues all of the play’s characters, from the belligerent Gordon (Peter MacQueen) to Joanna, the ambitious media woman, played by Charlotte Mulliner. Mulliner perhaps best represents the precariously balanced nature of control; she is the character who has most of it at the start of the play, and the only one to bow out as soon as she feels it slipping. Her smart heels and slick performance throw Hamer’s portrayal of a frayed and despairing Lia into sharp relief.

Meanwhile, Patrick Bridgman excels in the role of Lia’s partner, Nick, whose cynical retorts provide much of the play’s humour – a humour that teeters on the edge of hopelessness; Bridgman perfectly balances the two, a master at straddling the line between the emotions he exposes and those he withholds.

However, it is Richard Keightley’s Adam who makes the play a truly disturbing piece. His entrance at the end of the first half is a wave of uncertainty in an already turbulent drama – a wave which becomes a tsunami by the end of the play, as his Machiavellian power games seek to twist the characters against one another with a ferocity that would make Pinter proud. Keightley creates a character with so many layers of manipulation and vulnerability that it becomes impossible to know when (or even if) he ever lays bare this complex character’s troubled core.

Even in such an exceptionally strong season comprising outstanding productions like The 39 Steps and Suddenly Last Summer, Theatre by the Lake’s Enlightenment shines out: a gripping piece of contemporary theatre that seeks to unhinge our sense of control and safety in our own fragile lives.

~ Enlightenment runs at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, until 7th November 2015 ~

~ Richard Keightley (Adam): photo by Keith Pattison ~
~ Richard Keightley (Adam): photo by Keith Pattison ~

Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels is a play about two spirited women, who, while their more pedestrian husbands are away playing golf, drink themselves into a comical hysteria in anticipation of a visit from their former lover.

Theatre by the Lake production of FALLEN ANGELS by Noel Coward directed by Ian Forrest
~ Polly Lister (Julia), Emily Tucker (Saunders) & Frances Marshall (Jane): photo by Keith Pattison ~

Ian Forrest’s production at Theatre by the Lake delivers both of those things: hysteria on-stage, and comedy off-stage. Despite a slightly slower start, the production picked up in pace and energy with every glass of wine that Jane (Frances Marshall) and Julia (Polly Lister) drank, leading to some all-too-recognisable moments of inebriation and alcohol-induced feuding.

With such comical portrayal of female drunkenness, it is easy to see how Fallen Angels was such a scandalous success when first performed in the 1920s. However, the play’s dramatic impact is perhaps weakened in a society which has (thankfully) moved beyond finding perverse and mildly horrified entertainment in the idea that women, as well as men, might get drunk or have sexual urges. Despite its light entertainment value, it has perhaps become a play with little cultural relevance in our post-sexual revolution, post-Lady Chatterley, post-TOWIE world.

Despite the dated feel of the script, the play was produced and performed to the high standard that one should expect from Theatre by the Lake.

This was a play in which the women (perhaps quite deliberately) outshone the men – though a special mention has to be made of Ben Ingles’ exaggerated suave accent. Emily Tucker gave a strong performance as the self-important maid, Saunders, while Lister and Marshall carried the show brilliantly as the quarrelling best friends, Julia and Jane.

In both Fallen Angels and Abigail’s Party (also part of Theatre by the Lake Summer 2015 season), Lister’s ability to carry a scene and to hold an audience for long periods while alone on stage stood out as impressive, with excellent comic timing and a stage presence that absorbs an audience’s attention. Marshall provided the perfect foil to Lister’s Julia, with an almost immature gaiety that made her a delight to watch.

As with the Theatre by the Lake’s production of Abigail’s Party this season (to which it is quite similar in a number of respects), Fallen Angels may not be an example of thought-provoking contemporary theatre, but it does provide an entertaining evening out.

Theatre by the Lake production of FALLEN ANGELS by Noel Coward directed by Ian Forrest
~ Frances Marshall (Jane) & Polly Lister (Julia): photo by Keith Pattison ~

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Fallen Angels runs in the main house at Theatre by the Lake until 7th November 2015.

The Lady of the Lake, by Benjamin Askew: Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

Theatre by the Lake production of THE LADY OF THE LAKE by Benjamin Askew directed by Mary Papadima. Review by Katie Hale.
~ Emily Tucker (Morgan), Charlotte Mulliner (Nimue): photo by Keith Pattison ~

When I heard ‘new play about King Arthur written in verse’, I had mixed expectations. Although I always want poetry and verse to succeed, dealing with an established subject matter such as the legend of King Arthur, while using a more traditional form of script-writing, risks the drama feeling staid.

However, despite the play’s mythological setting, it has a contemporary feel. Benjamin Askew’s adaptation of the legend is carefully crafted and controlled, with dialogue that seems both natural and poetic at once.

The Lady of the Lake is also a play which asks big questions about narrative, authorship and autonomy. Framed in the context of a troupe of players, it becomes a play less about the story itself (although it is, of course, a riveting plot), and more about how that story is told and, more importantly, how it is remembered.

Mary Papadima’s stylised direction perfectly complements Askew’s beautiful and subtle verse, while Elizabeth Wright’s deceptively simple set creates almost a blank canvas on which any story could be told.

The integration of music and movement creates a sensory whirlwind, which at times gives the play an almost impressionistic feel – as though reminding us that the story unfolding before us is as fluid as the lake itself.

The only let-down to The Lady of the Lake is its length, occasionally slave to the richness of its intricate plot and sumptuous beauty of its dialogue. However, there is enough talent in the writing and cast to minimise this issue, with Patrick Bridgman playing an uncertain, heartfelt and sympathetic Arthur, years after his prime. Richard Keightley is a disturbingly enigmatic Taliesin, while Charlotte Mulliner and Emily Tucker channelled much of the show’s vivacious energy as Nimue and Morgan.

Benjamin Askew’s The Lady of the Lake is an ambitious play that (for the most part) carries through. In style and technique it is unlike anything I have seen at Theatre by the Lake in recent years: an intriguing piece of theatre.

Theatre by the Lake production of THE LADY OF THE LAKE by Benjamin Askew directed by Mary Papadima
~ Ben Ingles (Owain), Emily Tucker (Morgan), Patrick Bridgman (Arthur/Old Taliesin): photo by Keith Pattison ~

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The Lady of the Lake runs in the Studio at Theatre by the Lake until Friday 6th November

If you’re a fan of the inexplicable style of the 1970s, then Theatre by the Lake’s production of Abigail’s Party, directed by Ian Forrest, could be just what the doctor ordered. If not, then maybe this isn’t the play for you.

Theatre by the Lake production of ABIGAIL'S PARTY by Mike Leigh directed by Ian Forrest - review by Katie Hale
~ Johnny McPherson & Polly Lister: photo by Keith Pattison ~

From the moment you enter the auditorium, there can be no doubt about the era of the play: from the orange and brown wallpaper, to the light-up bar and brown leather sofa, Martin Johns’ set feels like a time machine – something the light-humoured production adds to with an announcement to turn off all mobile phones, pagers and polaroids.

But the period style excels itself with the entrance of Beverly (Polly Lister): a 70s vision in a lurid maxi dress and elaborate hairpiece. With her loud costume and character to match, Lister quickly claims the stage, drawing the audience into the tension of the character, as Beverly fights to retain control of this territory throughout the play.

This struggle for control is apparent in all the actors’ portrayals, from anxious, respectable Susan (Cate Hamer), to likeably naïve Angela (Frances Marshall), to Beverly’s condescending but put-upon husband, Laurence (Richard Earl) – perhaps the ultimate victor in the struggle for centre-stage attention.

However, particular credit has to go to Jonny McPherson as Tony, who, alongside Lister, provided most of the performance’s comedic moments – despite the fact most of his lines consisted only of ‘yeah’ and ‘ta’. With perfect comic timing, deadpan expressions, and silences as loud as Lister’s dialogue and costume, McPherson is easily one of the stars of the show.

As with the actors, every aspect of the production was of the high quality that I’ve come to expect from the Theatre by the Lake. But as a whole, Abigail’s Party left me uninspired, despite the obvious quality of the production values. Mike Leigh’s play feels dated, and the stilted dialogue (although comic in its awkward competitiveness) often feels relevant only to the play’s period setting, and without resonance in the modern world.

For those who miss the 70s, or those who want a light-hearted glimpse of them, Forrest’s vision of Abigail’s Party is an entertaining homage to the decade, which seems to exist as an island from the world of 2015 outside the theatre doors. For those searching for a more contemporary theatre experience, however, Abigail’s Party falls short.

 

~ runs until Friday 6th November ~

Theatre by the Lake production of ABIGAIL'S PARTY by Mike Leigh directed by Ian Forrest - review by Katie Hale
~ Richard Earl, Frances Marshall, Jonny McPherson, Polly Lister: photo by Keith Pattison ~