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.
‘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.