Monday, September 30, 2013

Operation Pied Piper

The ancient little bus rumbled on down the lane.  

We peered into the darkness, trying to spot familiar landmarks, while at the front, two little schoolgirls, with luggage labels on their coats and gas masks round their necks, fearfully clutched their tiny suitcases. 

None of us knew what was in store as the bus, its engine angrily growling and gears crunching, pulled into the grounds of Wallington Hall. 


We’d arrived in a different world: for the schoolgirls, it was a million miles from their homes in Scotswood; for us grownups, we were suddenly in 1939, transported by a theatrical time machine. 

In the hours before the outbreak of war, an order had gone out to evacuate hundreds of thousands of children from the towns to the countryside. Children living in the Scotswood area of Newcastle were considered at risk because of the huge munitions factory by the river. 


20 miles away, in stately Wallington Hall, Sir Charles Trevelyan had been given two options: turn over your mansion to the army, or open it up to the child evacuees of Newcastle. As the former MP for Newcastle Central, and a liberal socialist and pacifist, it was an easy decision. Troops might cause untold damage to his property and grounds. Children were at least controllable, provided they were girls, of course. 

So it was that 116 pupils and teachers from Elswick Girls School arrived in buses. Just like the one we rode in last week, at the start of a magical recreation of wartime Wallington. 

Every night for two weeks, a theatre company called November Club took small groups of 20 audience members around the house, with professional actors and amateurs from the Wallington area, including our neighbour Linda. It was directed by a close friend of ours, Cinzia Hardy. 

Not only was the continuous two-hour performance incredibly well staged and performed, interlaced with live music and sound effects, it also offered a unique perspective on Wallington. 


Our little group was led through the building from kitchen to attic. Sometimes we were audience, sometimes the girls themselves, baking scones in the kitchen, being taught in the makeshift schoolroom. 


The house evoked the period perfectly, for it has been frozen in time since 1942 when Sir Charles Trevelyan disinherited his son and bequeathed it to the National Trust. It may be a museum now, but the play, Operation Pied Piper, brought it to life. 

Trevelyan, wealthy landowner and liberal, joined the Labour party in 1918, became President of the Board of Education (the Gove of his time) in the brief 1924 Labour administration, and again in 1929, until his defeat in the 1931 election. His socialist views and sympathy for Soviet Russia were at odds with his social position in Northumberland, and this contradiction permeated the play. 


Trevelyan’s children were discouraged from associating with the common schoolgirls and the family silver was hidden for safety in the ice house, but Charles gave them all lessons on the benefits of socialism. 

A love story was also woven through, the wartime relationship between Trevelyan’s daughter Patricia, and a young lieutenant in the navy reserve, Philip Cheswright. They were married and had two children, born whilst Cheswright was at sea. 


The story of their separation, mirroring that of the schoolchildren, was brilliantly focused in a scene where an actress, playing their daughter Janet, read a touching love letter from Philip to her mother, shortly before his death. 

Then the theatrical wall was broken down: the “actress” revealed herself to be the real Janet, and then led us upstairs to her mother’s flat, carpets rolled up, as if waiting for the removal men. Which they were. Her mother died just 3 months ago, as the play was being written, and after the production her last personal belongings were to be removed from the house. 


She proudly showed us her son’s paintings of the family, and then she opened a trunk containing the original love letters between her parents that had inspired the play. We were invited to rummage through.

It was a brave, personal tribute from a daughter to a beloved mother, and also a rare, deeply moving moment when theatre suddenly met real life. Bravo.

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