Listen to an interview with the director and writer of The Rain Has Voices:
This production is the first by Flax303, a new performance company formed by Take Art to present new work to small-scale venues across the South West.
Written by Scottish-born, but now Bridgwater-based, playwright Shiona Morton and directed by Chris Fogg, The Rain Has Voices has been the culmination of a two-year project to find and develop new playwrights from Somerset.
Tonight's show at Strode was the opening of a 15-night tour around Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire.
A haunting tale
The play takes place in the near future. It is midsummer 2007 and persistently heavy rainstorms have caused havoc throughout Somerset.
The Glastonbury Festival has been cancelled and the remote fictional village of Harrow Bridge on the Somerset Levels has been evacuated.
Only a trio of householders remain to weather the storm: the separated Deborah Wallis, who has just moved to the village to build a new future at her deceased grandfather's dairy; recently widowed farmer Thomas Fear, who has lived in Harrow Bridge his entire life and won't leave despite the pleas of his son Simon, who works for the Environment Agency and has returned to the village to co-ordinate the evacuation; and the somewhat deluded octogenarian Sarah Vowles, who waits for the return of a daughter taken from her 60 years earlier.
The cast of five certainly shows no first-night nerves and from the opening minute we find ourselves totally absorbed by a haunting tale, which gradually unfolds over a two-day period.
Flashbacks and memories
As the torrential rain falls and the residents barricade themselves in, Lizzie, a mysterious young girl, arrives at the village battered by the storms, cold, bedraggled and hungry - she breaks into Thomas' home to be immediately confronted by him.
But just who is she? What is she running from? And just whose voices does she hear in the rain?
Through a series of flashbacks and memories we are given insight into the lives and histories of the central characters. This requires a cast of five to portray the lives of 13 people, yet as the plot unravels each actor remains on the stage.
So, if they are not involved in the action, they are in the background providing sound effects like the rain or perhaps a crackling fire.
Minimal changes in costume, as the tale flows seamlessly from the present to the past, mean that a certain amount of concentration is required from the audience. This facet of the play proved to be a little confusing at times and may have baffled some of the children in the audience.
A show worth catching
There is no question that the experienced actors carry the show magnificently. Michael Strobel in particular is outstanding, with an energetic and engaging portrayal of Thomas Fear (as well as Sarah's father, Deborah's grandfather, and a prison official in flashback).
William Bateman (Simon, Romany Boy, Sarah's son), Tanya Myers (Deborah, Thomas' wife, Sarah's mother) and Maggie Tagney (Sarah, Deborah's mother) excel too. Rebecca Hulbert as Lizzie remarkably represents a young girl whose life is in turmoil.
The set did not alter throughout the evening, and various props were moved around the stage as necessary for the story.
Nevertheless, the apparent constraints of this did not detract from the power of the performance. Hugely dark and atmospheric with scenes punctuated by a chilling and melancholy cello solo, this tale of torment, lost love and life on the Levels was captivating.
Accordingly, there was enthusiastic applause at the end of a show which is definitely worth catching at one of the other venues throughout the West Country.
The tour reaches its conclusion on 14 October 2006 at The Brewhouse in Taunton. You can also see The Rain Has Voices at Minehead's Regal Theatre on 11 October.