Arts: The secret life of an English village

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The Independent Culture
YOUR FAMILY has run, and made their home in the village post office for the last 100 years. But now the lease is up on the quaint cottage with its 16th-century beams, and the place is about to lose its traditional purpose and be sold to middle-class outsiders from Birmingham. Naturally, you feel wounded and resentful at the prospect of dispossession. On the other hand, is understandable grief at the passing of a way of life a wholly adequate explanation for your tragicomic cussedness? There's talk of suicide (using an old fished-out rifle); a flat refusal to budge to the point where vital services are cut off and your husband threatens divorce; and there's the rudeness to the pregnant purchaser who is told: "You'll never be able to buy what we have because you can't buy belonging to a place." Or is all this defiance masking a deeper hurt - one for which your compensatory project of compiling an oral history of the locality can never be a true consolation?

Ambivalence about the virtues of tradition and old close-knit communities pervades A Warwickshire Testimony, a piece which is itself based on interviews conducted by the director, Alison Sutcliffe, with members of local groups surrounding Stratford. From these "living memories", dramatist April de Angelis has fashioned a wryly funny and sensitive play. Shifting with a spare, charged poetry, in Sutcliffe's absorbing production, between the present and recollections spanning a whole century, the drama focuses on Dorothy (Susan Dury), the woman who is resisting eviction, and her elderly Aunt Edie (Cherry Morris) whose memory she is taping.

This latter is, we see, a rum source for an affectionate local history. Callously treated by a mother whose capacity for love was frozen when her husband perished during the war, Edie was always driven by a determination to flee the gossipy, claustrophobic feudal village where she featured as resident oddity. Now she wants to escape from its equally undesirable reverse; the blank impersonality of an old people's home. So she wangles herself into an ironic position, coming back full circle to the beleaguered family post office in return for feeding her niece with memories.

As the younger Edie of the flashbacks, Catherine Kanter beautifully charts the character's progress from sullen misfit, whose main pleasure in doggedly losing her virginity is that it will spite her mother, to successful but still love-starved career woman, the owner of a smart little Sixties hairdressing salon. Scenes full of sympathetic, skilfully syncopated comedy adumbrate a world where, in the director's telling phrase, there's a sense of the "mundane sitting beside the momentous". An episode where young Edie goes, for the first and last time, to help her mother in her sideline business of laying out corpses is a case in point. The girl's yearning for the father she never met is poignantly underscored when the dead body she is about to sponge down revives in her father's identity and snatches a conversation with her. This is hilariously off-set, though, by the mother's brisk, definitively non-spiritual orders: "Pennies on his eyes. Book under his chin. Cork up his back passage."

Death haunts the piece, eventually explaining why Dorothy is so paralysed in an idealised version of the past. This subtly balanced play ends with plans for another funeral ritual, one which will be both a homage to tradition and a way of psychologically breaking free into the future.