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  • Anita Sullivan

Model Village Theatre: New Perspectives

A model village rebels and the ‘bigs’ have to intervene. But should the historic village stay in 1930’s England, or move forward? The audience decides. A new theatre show about two worlds, on two scales. Model Village theatre: New Perspectives Theatre Company touring through October and November 2023.

Poster for theatre play Model Village by Anita Sullivan, a fox looks at you from a village green with a hunt meet
Children explore a church and castle at Bekonscot Model Village, Ben Fearnside's oast house in the foreground

Where did the idea come from?

When my husband Ben Fearnside graduated in furniture design from High Wycmbe University in 1997, he briefly worked at Bekonscot Model Village in Buckinghamshire. He was an ‘architectural miniaturist’ and one of his projects was building an oast house. A decade later when we got together, he took me to see ‘his house’. I fell in love with Bekonscot’s tiny world. Whatever your age, you can’t walk through the gates without smiling.




Bekonscot Model Village Buckinghamshire

The village of waist-high buildings has a little of everything. There are castles, cottages, country-estates, churches, a Cornish fishing village, factory, cinema, zoo, town-hall and even a small airfield. The buildings are surrounded by perfectly tended bonsai, lawns and mini lakes. A Gauge 1 railway through tunnels, bridges and seven stations. But for me, the heart of the village is the miniature people, the witty scenes early C20th life. It was created by Roland Callingham, London accountant turned model-maker, and opened to the public in 1929. It was ‘A little piece of history that is forever England’.


View of Bekonscot Model village, showing fishing village and model railway

A comforting story?

You have to admire the village’s blind optimism, or defiance, in the face of a looming World War. Did that tension drive the need to create a neat, safe miniature world? I also wondered what ‘forever England’ means to us now, in a country with so many divisions and currents of need and belief. And what about the tiny people, whose makers put such life and love into them? What about their working conditions? The giant grabby kids, huge feet, big weather and enormous frogs? Do they know they’re stuck in time? What do they think of their modern visitors? What would they say if they could?

This was a story I wanted to explore. A lot of my drama is radio. The sound design for the big/ small worlds would be fantastically creative. But it just felt too eccentric for Radio 4 in the afternoon. It wasn’t a film, it wasn’t a novel. Could it be… theatre?


New Perspectives Theatre Company

In 2019 Jack McNamara, then artistic director of New Perspectives, commissioned me to adapt Janet Frame’s ‘An Angel at my Table’. Tour booking was underway when Covid struck. After two attempts to get a tour off the ground we were faced with a backlog of shows, a change in appetite from audiences, plus Jack had moved on and Angharad Jones was the new Artistic Director. A get-to-know-you Zoom about ‘Angel’ turned into a conversation about Model Village. It felt perfect for a rural touring audience and Angharad seemed confident that the big/ small worlds were possible on stage.


Child looks into windows of shops on a model village street: shop names have terrible puns like ' Sam and Ella's butchers

Interactive possibilities

This new context got my mind whirring. I had a pretty rural upbringing, with the local village-hall the centre of my creative life. (If an am-dram gender-reversal version of South Pacific counts as creative?) I also have a background in interactive narrative design and site-specific theatre. So I imagined the audience singing the village anthem, choosing the version of England they wanted. Maybe we could run workshops, start discussions about village life in contemporary England? Feed some of that content into the live shows… At the time of writing I don’t know how much of that will actually happen, but it’s all being talked about!


Bekonscot Model Village figures workshop; minature people stand on foamboard while paint dries, others like in Tupperware boxes

Research

Once commissioned, I returned to Bekonscot and talked to the incredibly generous Maura Buckland and Brian Newman-Smith, who gave me a detailed tour of the workshops, showed me how buildings were made and maintained, and the scale figures were created. The village in my story isn't specifically Bekonscot: it borrows from other villages and Tim Dunn’s book on the history of model villages. Many greats, now deceased. Whatever I did, I had to honour the skill and dedication of these makers.


Flip chart from theatre R&D workshop day. Includes the words 'slightly rotate everyone's fox'.

Development

Scriptwriting was a joy. It seemed to write itself, the characters standing up and springing into life, sometimes making me laugh aloud. I also had the pleasure of working with composer Nick Underwood on the songs, following the success of our cabaret version of Dr Faustus. Angharad ran an R&D session on the script, with Duane Hannibal, Abbey Pidgeon and Joe Wiltshire-Smith. They were a great team. We really burrowed into the logic of the double world, how time worked and the characters’ drivers and secrets.



Model makers's workshop at Bekonscot Model Village: work bench hand tools, vice, drill, glasses and miniature life-saving rings being painted

Production

I’m delighted Duane and Abbey could join the company for the tour, with Lee Rufford. I’m also really excited to see how Gemma Caseley-Kirk solves the double-world in 3D on stage, with a set that can tour anywhere. It’s a big challenge, but I have complete faith. All will be revealed in three weeks when rehearsals start!

In writing this blog I realise how much playfulness runs through the project. So although Model Village is satirical and raises some big questions about ‘what is England’, it has the same heart, humanity and humour you’d find in any model village around the country. Smiles guaranteed.




Touring

For more information and tour dates visit the New Perspectives Theatre Company website.

If there isn’t a show within your reach, do the next best thing: visit your local Model Village and have a chat to the little residents.

Terrace row of back gardens in Bekonscot Model village: a man with a child in a barrow; a girl feeding a rabbit next to a pigeon loft, a woman hanging up washing

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