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Touring Theatre

Experiencing an audience responding to her scripts and laughing collectively was, for Julia, ‘the best feeling in the world’. Just as she toured her own spoken poetry, often in cabaret with other writers and musicians, her plays toured successfully across England. Writing in Eating the Elephant and Other Plays (2005), Julia commented: ‘I never wanted to be a playwright, but theatre was a world I naturally leant towards, and which appealed to my love of the oral tradition in poetry, of working with others, of rooms full of laughter or emotion.’

Julia was awarded a C.P. Taylor Bursary in 1990, enabling her to work as writer-in-residence at Bruvvers Community Theatre Company at Lime Street, in Newcastle’s Ouseburn Valley. Established in 1969 by Mike Mould, Bruvvers brought theatre into disadvantaged areas of Tyneside. The company performed Julia’s sharply funny Rites from Wrongs in October 1991. It is the tale of new-age travellers proceeding to a summer solstice festival opposed by media, locals, landowners and politicians. In a Guardian review of Rites from Wrongs, writer and publisher Peter Mortimer observed:‘It shows the writer’s development, her need to create a full-blooded naturalistic play.’

Quondam Theatre Company

Julia’s next partnership was with the innovative Quondam (Latin for once upon a time), a small-scale professional touring company based in Cumbria. With its dedication to new plays, muscular storylines and strong characters, Quondam provided Julia with a relationship that was engaging, supportive and long-lasting. Julia wrote in 2005 ‘Working for Quondam was uncomplicated and I could write what I wanted given the boundaries of budget, and although the subject mater was prescribed, it was always fascinating,’

Quondam’s founder and producer Andy Booth aimed to produce accessible shows for wide national tours and the company’s first grant-aided production was Julia’s Rafferty’s Café in 1992. It was the ‘true story of a poor man who rose to wealth and power on the back of a community living through turbulent times.’The protagonist was the infamous Cumbrian, John Rafferty, who led the Maryport Communists in the 1930s and became champion of the underdog. His café and social club for the unemployed later made him a fortune from gaming machines. Julia researched his life by chatting to people in Maryport bars, and she wrote: ‘It never ceased to amaze me that memories were still so vivid of this man who died over twenty years ago… People looked after me…fed me, introduced me to others giving me a wealth of stories about not only Rafferty, but the world he lived in.’

Rafferty interested Julia because of his complex nature –  ‘sometimes a hero, other times a bitter and sad man’ – and also his politics. Writing in the programme, Julia commented: ‘I had been a Party member for some years when I first moved to Newcastle; and during that time had met many of the region’s political activists. Here was an opportunity to look at that experience through the life of another.’ Rafferty’s Café embarked on a lengthy tour, across the north of England and the Midlands before also showing in village halls and drama centres in Dorset, Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire.

The follow-up a year later was Head of Steel, directed by Rachel Ashton, about the navvies who built the Settle-to-Carlisle railway line using dynamite, picks and shovels. The flyer quoted: ‘Unmarried, unchristian…buried in unmarked graves.’ Opened in 1876, it was the last mainline railway in England to be constructed by hand, completing Midland’s route to Scotland. The same dramatic subject was the focus of ITV’s Jericho (2016), centring on the navvies who built the Ribblehead viaduct, an engineering feat of the Industrial Revolution. Julia wrote: ‘I have taken the extraordinary “backdrop” of the building of the Settle to Carlisle railway and the society that emerged in the desolate shanty towns of Batty Moss Green, Jericho, Jerusalem and Sebastapol. It was a world of sharp contrasts, of despair and drunkenness, and of religious moralism and irreverence.

Black Diamonds was Julia’s third history play, confronting Cumbrian involvement in the slave trade, which operated from the seaport of Whitehaven in the 18th century. Set in the 1750s and also directed by Rachel Ashton, Black Diamonds is the ‘compelling story of triumph and despair, set against the frantic years of slaving when so much was won and lost’. Quondam toured Black Diamonds to arts centres, schools, village halls, scout centres, universities and even HM Prison Portland. Commenting on the extraordinary reach of Quondam into communities across England, Julia wrote: ‘I love the smell and ambience of a packed village hall, the cups and saucers with a ginger biscuit, the idea of a troupe of players bringing a huge and epic story to a community

The Ashton Group

In a departure from historical narratives, Julia’s play Eating the Elephant was drawn from her own experiences, using writing therapeutically to make sense of illness. This was a ‘pivotal piece of work’ for Julia, which she found both ‘challenging and healing’. Eating the Elephant was first performed by The Ashton Group at The Forum in Barrow in Furness in 1997. Since then the play has been used by many voluntary and professional health groups to facilitate discussions about cancer. Julia wrote in 2005: ‘Eating the Elephant was a departure for me in terms of theatre. In 1995 I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and this changed my life and writing.’

Although ultimately tragic, the play is overwhelmingly uplifting and features a hand-made quilt, one of Julia’s significant motifs. This had a personal meaning, as a friend she had stayed with in Australia while writing the novel Crocodile Soup created a quilt for her, incorporating shreds of Julia’s clothes left behind from the trip. In the play, the character Laura writes in her diary:

 The fortnight before my operation I spend at home. I’m making a quilt. I’m sewing bits of my life into it. Scraps of children’s clothes, letters from my mother, and now I thought I might sew bits of my diary in, or shreds of useless brassieres.

Julia’s follow-up play for The Ashton Group was a two-hander The Night Tom Jones Came to Barrow, which had been commissioned as part of the  Barramundi project in 2000. A brief synopsis stated: ‘Reg is a Tom Jones impersonator, and Miss Cleo is a drag queen. In the dressing room of a Barrow cabaret club, Miss Cleo’s true identity is revealed and hard man Reg’s past catches up with him big style.’

Quondam Theatre Company

Quondam’s artistic director Fine Time Fontayne caught Julia’s attention with his suggestion of a play about the flamboyant yet troubled TV celebrity chef Fanny Cradock (1909-1994). The ‘doughnut diva’ had a troubled background and Julia wrote how she ‘jumped at the idea of writing about one of my childhood phantoms’. Fanny was famed for her inventions such as dying mash in lively colours, of which Julia had personal experience: ‘I am sure we ate green mashed potato at some point in my childhood.’

Doughnuts Like Fanny’s gave Julia the opportunity to write about a woman so driven, she had formulated her Plan to escape from destitution. It worked and Fanny helped shape post-war culinary trends, in addition to leading the way for other celebrity chefs.

The show was written for three actors and first performed in 2002 at the Arts Centre, University of Central Lancashire in Preston. Justine Adams played Fanny while Neil Gore took on all the men in her life including her long-suffering husband Johnnie (who had once said on TV: ‘Perhaps you too can make doughnuts like Fanny’s!). Sandra Hunt played the women in Fanny’s life for the tour, and the play become a critically-acclaimed hit. Julia subsequently adapted Doughnuts Like Fanny’s into a popular one-woman show for Sandra. This was given the title of Fanny Cradock: The Life and Loves of a Kitchen Devil and Sandra toured it across the UK until 2014.

Northern Stage

Julia’s final touring play was the irreverent A Manifesto for a New City, created for the Northern Stage ensemble and directed by Alan Lyddiard. The show’s roots lie in the ambitious staging of Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell in 2004 (co-produced by West Yorkshire Playhouse and Northern Stage). As part of a wider project inspired by Orwell’s experience of the Spanish Civil War, Northern Stage asked three writers to respond to the city of Barcelona. Julia spent a weekend in Catalonia with poets W.N. Herbert and Linda France and wrote in her blog: ‘I loved the way they wrapped postcards up in thin paper, and took such care over small things.’

The trip to Barcelona fed into Julia’s concern about rapid changes to Newcastle along with prospective over-development. She was particularly unsettled by the proposed (and finally shelved) Wimpey Tower Block on the quayside, which she discussed in an interview with The Journal’s Culture. Julia had often written of her love for the city, describing Newcastle in her blog as a ‘bouncy young person.’ She advocated viewing it ‘holistically’ and wrote various manifestos for Newcastle, including the poem A Short Manifesto for My City, which closes:

My city is hard stone, canny and clever.
Don’t give it a mirror. Let it be itself.

Julia’s manifesto poems were performed at Flying Homages, a cabaret night featuring actors and musicians, including Colin Teevan, which was held at the Newcastle Playhouse. After the event Julia wrote in her blog: ‘I recommend writing ones own manifesto. Like new blood, it quite fires one up, and makes one feel like charging into the streets.’ From these poems Julia developed her love letter to Newcastle, A Manifesto for a New City. In this full-length musical play, Julia imagined what Newcastle would be like if the property developers were overthrown by artists, who “make a city of creativity…(with) soup and apples for tea.” The show was a chance to reflect on a city going through a phase of major development and Julia intended it to be a ‘bit of a stirrer.’ It closes with the song Loving Itself:

This city shall treasure its pedestrians
And its small places, its irregular shops.

It shall hang onto its alleys and its tunnels
Steep stairs and uneven chimneys.

Its children shall know the history of its streets
And its grandparents shall guard its mysteries.

This city shall never try to be Barcelona,
Or dress itself in luxury underwear.

A Manifesto for a New City toured in 2005 when the Newcastle Playhouse was closed during its transformation into Northern Stage. Premiering at the Queen’s Hall, Hexham, it was well received and in a review for British Theatre Guide, Peter Lathan wrote: ‘No time is wasted: there’s no padding. It retains its wit and razor-sharp observation of human foibles.’

In 2015, Northern Stage commemorated the tenth anniversary of Julia’s death with a new production titled Manifesto for a New City. Directed by Emma Roxburgh, the show demonstrated the universality of Julia’s themes, displaying her ingenious lyrics to full advantage.

I believe in the mist that hangs over the vale
And the black brambly path to the sea
I believe in the songs that curl over this city
And I believe in the language of WE.

Copyright Tamzin Mackie