Those of us that live in London or one of the other cities in the UK often have very little knowledge of the countryside. For many people, it’s the green bit either side of the motorway as we travel from A to B. Or it’s that picture postcard place where we take a holiday to get so far away from things that the nearest Waitrose is half an hour away. Of course, the countryside is so much more than either of these things. It is the home and working place of millions of people and supplies around 60% of all the food consumed in the UK. If you would like a chance to really appreciate the countryside then I would heartily recommend Graham Harvey’s No Finer Life which I caught at the Pleasance Theatre the other night.
No Finer Life follows the story of Elizabeth (Roberta Bellekom) a Land Army Girl who falls in love with farmer George Henderson was the author of ‘The Farming Ladder’ – published in 1944 – a revolutionary book that asked farmers to re-evaluate their methods and think about going back to some of the tried and tested methods that have sustained the country for centuries. Roberta tells Elizabeth’s story as a series of monologues and songs – by Alastair Collingwood – from both the perspective of young Elizabeth living her life and Elizabeth of today reflecting back. This is achieved by the sheer skill of Roberta’s acting and, without any change of costume, you can see her morph from one to the other as she crosses the stage. Director A. J. Kroon makes great use of the stage to illustrate the story, along with farming props and some wonderful old photographs – although on a bigger stage I think they would need to be projected rather than run through a screen.
The story itself is really fascinating and author Graham Harvey has obviously put a lot of love and knowledge into the production. At the Q&A afterwards, Graham explained that he had met the real Elizabeth and really loved the story of her and George and their life. Graham is also a real lover of the countryside. For those that don’t know, he is Agricultural Story Editor for long running radio soap ‘The Archers’ and has written over 600 episodes in his time – with many more to come I hope.
All told, No Finer Life is a true story of extraordinary country folk. Elizabeth has led a fascinating life. She comes across as a really lovely and determined lady and, I am not ashamed to say that the final words, spoken on video by Elizabeth herself caused more than one audience member to have a tear in their eye as the lights went up. As I left the theatre and re-entered the world of roadworks, tube strikes and London Overground not running for the weekend – again – a small bit of this city boy, had a sudden yearning for a quieter, less complicated life somewhere green and leafy. Then I remembered the lack of theatres in the country and came to my senses.
Overall, then No Finer Life is a really nice, gentle production of a lovely story, beautifully told.
Review by Terry Eastham
Graham Harvey, for twenty years the Agricultural Story Editor of The Archers and writer of more than 600 episodes, brings to the stage the true tale of an unlikely Cotswold hero and an enduring romance and pursues some of the issues that makes that radio drama so addictive.
Set in the Oxfordshire countryside and spanning seven decades from the end of World War Two, it’s rich in tradition and full of vivid, memorable characters. But this is no nostalgic, bucolic ramble. This is the war within as rural Britain and the environment come under attack and with it our very identity This is Elizabeth’s story. What inspires a young Somerset land girl to set off in search of a best-selling author in the darkest days of war? The story moves between the 1940s and the current day, reflecting that the love of the countryside, the need to protect it and issues of national identity, are timeless and have a new relevance in a post-Brexit era. “When peace is won, we fight for the land we love”…
Graham Harvey will be taking part in an after-show conversation – included in the ticket price – where he will discuss the issues in the play…and all things Ambridge!
The show features new live music composed and performed by Alastair Collingwood, who has written scores for numerous theatre shows, including Betty in London’s West End, directed by Kathy Burke, and Cora with Dana Gillespie, which also toured the USA. His TV credits include the title music for French and Saunders (BBC1), Mad About Alice (BBC 1), Rhona (BBC 2), Vanessa’s Real Lives (ITV 1) and How Clean Is Your House? (Channel 4), amongst many others.
Friday – Sunday 28th – 30th April
The Pleasance Theatre, Carpenters Mews, North Rd., Islington N7 9EF