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Chris Neville-Smith

Things I've done for the stage

Improbable Fiction

Alan Ayckbourn's Improbable Fiction, directed by Chris Neville-Smith, 24th-30th November. Publicity image showing a goblin, detective, terrified woman, music and UFO come out of a book

Melodramas! Whodunnits! Aliens! Squirrels! All-singing, all-dancing pilgrims! All this and more at the Pendon Writers' Circle, as six aspiring writers meet on an evening before Christmas.

Mild-mannered chairman Arnold is a housebound carer for his bed-ridden mother. Retired teacher Brevis used to write musicals for the school where he once had power. Grace wants to write stories for her children who grew up a long time ago, and Jess struggles to put a single word to page for her historical romance. Vivvi's crime fiction endless overwrites about a perfect man she once knew, and Clem writes incomprehensible science fiction based on a conspiracy at the local town hall. And yet Ilsa, the weekly stand-in carer for Arnold's mother, idolises them all as famous authors.

Arnold suggests they all collaborate on a piece, but the idea is a non-starter. Or is it? After the meeting, some very strange things start to happen.

Improbable Fiction was premiered in 2005 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and his since become one of Ayckbourn's most popular and most performed works. Part zany comedy, part touching portrayal of loneliness, join us for a writers' collaboration like you've never seen before.

How it went

Improbable Fiction was performed on the 24th-30th November at the City Theatre for Durham Dramatic Society. This was my first full-length play I'd directed, and it turned out I'd vastly underestimated how complicated this play was. But I kept on top of things, and it looks like the feedback from this was rather good.

Five of the nights either sold out or almost sold out, with a final figure of 90% sales achieved. I can't entirely take the credit for that - the biggest factor is who wrote the play, and that's entirely Mr. Ayckbourn's doing. However, there was a sharp pickup in ticket sales after the opening night, which is usually a good sign that you'ev done something right.

This was also the début appearance for four of the seven members of cast. Welcome to DDS, may your stay be a long one.

Oh, and it got voted best production of 2013 by DDS members. I don't read too much into this myself, but all the same, well done everyone for making this possible.


Here you go. Click on any thumbnail for a larger version.

All pictures © Wendy Smith, taken during the dress rehearsal on the 22nd October. These pictures are at an internet-friendly resolution - please contact Wendy Smith at DDS if you want print version or high-resolution digital versions.

Arnold Hassock (Mike Smith) counting how many people are coming. Hazel Geldard as Isla Wolby. Ilsa gives Arnold his present: a rather feeble Christmas tree. Jess Bale (Lesley Anderson) arrives.
Grace Sims (Yvonne Doyle) sits, holding her work protectively. Brevis Winterton (Alan Godfrey) is already bored. Clem (James Tynan) reads his work. Vivvi (Kayleigh Knox) hasn't a clue what's going on. Brevis, about to leave, say to Arnold 'You're a good bloke, you know Arnold ... You deserve better, you really do'
And suddenly ... everyone surrounds Arnold in Victorian dress, with Ilsa holding a knife. Kindly Dr. Thomas Goodpiece (aka Brevis) attends to the distressed Ilsa. And now a 1930s whodunnit - DCI Jim Rash (Clem) and DS Fiona Longstaff (Vivvi) surround and grill Arnold Mavis Green (Grace), sister of the deceased, interviewed by Jim Rash - do you think she's the baddie?
Rex Van Ecks (Brevis) explains alien abductions. Confused? So is Arnold. Rex van Ecks: 'They've taken over, they can make mistakes. Even in the town hall, the make mistakes.' Shifty nephew Dudley (Clem) works his charms on Mrs. Norris (Jess), Rex: 'You want to measure up, Solo? Solo (Vivvi) pulls a measuring tape held by a bewildered Arnold.
Jim Rash to a 1930s maid version of Ilsa: 'You think Mr. Hassock might have killed his wife, do you? Why should Mr. Hassock want to kill his wife, Ilsa?' I told you she was the baddie: Mavis Green's escape thwarted by Fiona Longstaff. Arnold and Dr. Goodpiece discuss their plan with Isla. 'Then, I noticed Ilsa sit up slightly in her chair, listening intently, as though she alone had heard something, something that had eluded the rest of us.'
Mrs. Norris aka Jess: 'And so, dear reader, we left the uncle a smiling, contented man, secure in the knowledge that his house was finally purged of hatred, to be filled once again with Christian love.' Rhona (Grace) and Solo arrive with some electronic gizmos known as STJs. It's Doblin the Goblin! Doblin (Ilsa) appears in front of a joyous Rhona/Grace and Rex/Brevis. Full cast and crew (L-R): Pete Hagger (Set), Kayleigh Knox (Vivvi), James Tynan (Clem), Tess Hagger (Production Advisor), Elenor Maddison (Props), John Maddison (Set), Lesley Anderson (Jess), Jessica Beard (Props), Mike Smith (Arnold), Chris Neville-Smith (Director), Hazel Geldard (Ilsa), Gordon Lawrie (Sound), Therea Mulkerin (Lights), Yvonne Doyle (Grace), Alan Godfrey (Brevis), Kate Lawrie (Prompt).

Cast and crew

The cast of the Pendon Writers' Circle were ...

Arnold Hassock, chairman (instruction manuals) Mike Smith
Jess Bales, farmer (historical romance) Lesley Anderson
Grace Sims, housewife (children's fiction) Yvonne Doyle
Vivvi Dickins, journalist (crime fiction) Kayleigh Knox
Clem Pepp, council worker (science fiction) James Tynan
Brevis Winterton, retired teacher (musical adaptations) Alan Godfrey
Ilsa Wolby, shop assistant Hazel Geldard

And the crew were ...

Production Adviser
Tess Hagger
Kate Lawrie
Sound and Lighting
Gordon Lawrie and Theresa Mulkerin
Set Design and Construction
Pete Hagger, Lesley Anderson, Jessica Beard, John Maddison
Elenor Maddison, Jessica Beard, Lesley Anderson
Marion Clapham, Kate Lawrie, Lesley Anserson, Sheila Shippen, Eunice Bell, Judy McKinnel, Elenor Maddison
Front of House
Wendy Smith, Eunice Bell, Peter Hagger, Alwyn Priestnall
Ian Woodhouse
Publicity Design
Me and Caroline Chapman

The old casting information is available in an archive if anyone still wants to see that. This includes some handy descriptions of the characters if anyone wants to use it for their own productions.