Monday, 17 March 2008

Alamayou and Arthur

Richard Wilcocks writes:

Its rare - and perhaps unwise - to try and stage a piece that's written for radio. But the style, scope and subject matter of Peter's play made us risk the attempt.
That's a quote from the programme for I was a stranger by Peter Spafford, the first of the double bill from Theatre of the Dales which was performed on Saturday and Sunday evenings in the studio at the Yorkshire College of Music and Drama in Shire Oak Road. The studio was full to overflowing on both occasions. The programme continues:

We hope you'll enjoy this curious hybrid, where actors carry scripts as in a broadcast, at the same time as telling the story visually.

We did enjoy it. We loved it. During the post-performance discussion yesterday (Sunday) the director, David Robertson, who also played Captain Speedy, seemed a little uneasy, wondering whether the show had really worked, because actors wandering about with scripts was unusual, like a rehearsal.

If he was fishing for compliments, he caught fat trout, glistening and beautiful. The play is the story of Prince Alamayou of Abyssinia, captured at the age of seven as a kind of afterthought after the British had defeated his father, King Tewedros, and indulged in extensive looting of ancient treasures. The play traces his journey from Africa to India to Rugby School to Sandhurst to Headingley, where he lived with Cyril Ransome, father of Arthur.

The play has plenty of local references, of course. Alamayou, in search of his lost identity and breathing industrial air, walks about in Headingley in the middle of the night, which is not really advisable even today unless you are with friends and dressed as a bumblebee. He visits the menagerie in the zoological gardens, the very solid wall of which can still be seen in Chapel Lane, and he is holed up in Hollin Lane, which is very much still there, just a little changed since the time when a prince was dying of pneumonia, bombarded by telegrams from Queen Victoria, deeply concerned about the impending death of one of her little pets, a pretty black boy with a winning smile.

Jamal Rahman was a superb Alamayou. He's in the foreground of the photo below watched by - not in this order - Danny and Jessica Neale, Arif Javid, David Robertson, Jane Oakshott, Maggie Mash, Richard Rastall and Stuart Fortey.

Stuart Fortey was in his own short play, Duffers, which followed, playing Cyril Ransome, as he had in the previous one. It illustrated this 1930 quote on Swallows and Amazons from Arthur Ransome:

The children in it have no firm dividing line between make-believe and reality, but slip in and out again and again, exactly as I had done when I was a child and I fancy we all of us do in grown-up life.....In a way we were making the best of both worlds.
Stuart was playing dead when he was on stage looming behind David Robertson's entirely convincing Arthur on the banks of a Cumbrian river, a black-tied spectre with a sour voice. Jessica Neale playing Ransome's rather neglected daughter Tabitha is, incredibly, still at school - Notre Dame Sixth Form College - where she is doing Theatre Studies. She was terrific. We'll be hearing more about her in the future.

The Arthur Ransome Society was represented by Margaret and Joe Ratcliffe (that's them down below) who came with relevant books and who contributed to the discussion afterwards.

So, an excellent last evening of the LitFest. We've not really finished though.

                                                 Photo by Richard Wilcocks

                                               Photo by Richard Wilcocks


  1. Always great to see a packed auditorium and I thought both plays were excellent, and the productions too.

  2. Richard Wilcocks just sent me the blog of the Litfest - I have been living in Tanzania for 20 years but used to live in Headingley in the early 70s in the Broomfields. The Fest sounds great and I am only sorry to be missing it. Whilst we have sun, sea and space here, there is a dirth of literary cultural choices. I like the way it relates to local history and reminds us of the Headingley of the past. I would also like to compliment Richard on his stylish reviews - he is a talented writer himself. Hongera sana (congrats in Kiswahili) Karen Naiman

  3. Hi - do you know where I could get a copy of 'I was a stranger' by Peter Spafford. I have hunted about online without much success.

  4. For A Heavens - I'll give you Peter Spafford's address if you email me at, putting LITFEST in the subject line. You can then write to him to find out where the script is available. R WIlcocks

  5. Hi Richard
    Wonders of Google allow me whilst sitting in a computing class in Swan Tafe Perth Western Australia to catch up on old friends and memories. I was married to Karen Naiman when she was Hauxby and we are still in touch across the Indian Ocean... Copped her comment above which I whole heartedly agree with. Good luck with the lit fest ...
    Charlie Hauxby

  6. By sheer coincidence, I was at Windsor Castle in St.George's Chapel just the day before yesterday and saw Alamayou's grave there. Most of the research I did for the play has gone from my head, but I do remember that he lived at 1, Hollin Lane. The owners of the house in 2004 kindly showed me the outside toilet where he apparently fell asleep in winter, which resulted in the pneumonia that killed him.

    There have been attempts recently to claim Alamayou for Ethiopia as a kind of lost hero-king. My research indicated to me that he was very much a victim of circumstances who did not survive long enough to assert any kind of authentic action or self-determined volition in his lifetime. He passively endured whilst he was alive, but we just do not know what he might have become. I think that is the tragic truth of it.