Little Britches Theatre Company to launch outdoor staging of Shakespeare’s Will… with Sunday afternoon tea in Ampleforth

Imogen Hope, left, and Josie Campbell in rehearsal for Shakespeare’s Will. Pictures: Michael J Oakes

LITTLE Britches Theatre Company should have launched already in Dubai but “guess what happened in between” then and now.

Instead, pushed back by the pandemic and now back home, North Yorkshire duo Josie Campbell and Imogen Hope will present Vern Thiessen’s two-hander Shakespeare’s Will in a private show in a Sutton-on-the-Forest garden on Friday night, followed by a public performance with afternoon tea at Hearts of Ampleforth, near Helmsley, on Sunday at 2.30pm.

In this one-hour, pop-up outdoor show about Anne Hathaway’s imagined life with, but mostly without, playwright William Shakespeare, teacher, theatre-maker, performer and erstwhile voiceover artist Josie will play Anne.

Theatre-maker, actor, musician and performing arts teacher Imogen will take the role of Actor-Musician.

“We are delighted to be performing our work within the community,” says Josie, who officially formed Little Britches with Imogen earlier this year while she was still living in the United Arab Emirates. Now the company is based in Ampleforth.

“Join us for a taste of some Renaissance mud, blood, and occasional stud, in this hilarious, energetic and ultimately tragic tale of love, labour and loss,” says Josie.

Here, she and Imogen answer CharlesHutchPress’s questions about Shakespeare’s Will, Little Britches’ projects and their creative partnership.

How and where did you meet Imogen, Josie?

“We’ve known each other since Immy was 13! She was in the same year as my son, Archie, at Gilling (Ampleforth College). I was subsequently her assistant housemistress when she moved to Ampleforth.

“I taught her A-level Theatre Studies, as well as coaching her through her ATCL Acting Diploma. We’ve kept in touch on and off through the years.”

How did you settle on the name Little Britches and why, Josie?

“Ha! I had a shortlist of possibles but we both liked the fact that this is a bit cheeky. We’re both little in stature – Immy’s taller! – and the ‘breeches’ reference resonated with the fact that our first play was set in a time when these were worn.”

How did you come across Vern Thiessen’s Shakespeare’s Will, Josie?

“It premiered in 2005 in Canada, where it has been performed extensively. The USA premiere was produced by Leonard Nimoy (yes, Spock!).

“I had spent ages and ages looking for a one-act, small-cast play that featured a woman of my age. It wasn’t easy, I can tell you! From a Little Britches point of view, there is still acres more space for women’s stories to be told.”

Josie Campbell rehearsing a scene from Little Britches Theatre Company’s Shakespeare’s Will

How would you sum up the play, Josie?  

“It’s a play about Anne’s imagined life with – but mostly without – her increasingly famous husband. Beginning just after his funeral, she prevaricates over reading the will, using the time to reminisce about her life.

“It’s been described as ‘catnip for Shakespeare fans’ and I love that! It’s light and irreverent, but there’s a point in the play when it darkens as the plague arrives…and there’s a tragic twist at the end.

“It does help to have a bit of knowledge about who Anne Hathaway was, and especially the debate surrounding ‘the second-best bed’, but it’s not essential.”

What are the themes, Josie?

“What appealed to me was that the play is a life as seen through the eyes of a woman – from a very domestic point of view. She’s more or less a single mother, keeping it together while her husband’s life turns out to be bigger than hers.

“There is so much that resonates for woman: accidental pregnancy, the less-than-idyllic realities of childbirth and babies, single motherhood, challenging relationships with in-laws, absent husbands, sexual freedom. I see a lot of wry smiles from women in the audience when we perform this!

“Its femininity as a play is represented by the fluidity of the repeated water/sea motif. The sea is Anne’s ‘safe space’, her retreat.

“There are also references in the play to theatres closing because of the plague. Maybe Vern Thiessen had a crystal ball when he wrote this!”

What does your staging of a show involve, Josie?

“We’re truly a pop-up show, so our set is whatever and wherever the backdrop is. We can perform in very intimate spaces – anywhere where you can fit an audience, from private gardens and cafés/pubs to larger arts centres and theatres.

“We can fit all our props – from model ships to a bunch of rosemary…and the will – in a hand basket. If the host can’t provide anything suitable, we bring along a table and chair. Of course, Imogen brings her violin, her guitar and her beautiful voice.”

What music have you composed for Shakespeare’s Will, Imogen?

“The period of the play is Elizabethan and so a folk-music style felt fitting. Some of the pieces, such as the fiddle jigs and the ‘Love Theme’, are taken from traditional folk tunes.

“However, some of the other tunes played and sung are composed by me, making sure to keep the folk genre and style consistent.

Where there’s Hope: Imogen Hope will provide the music for Little Britches’ production of Shakespeare’s Will

“Music is integral to our performance. It’s multi-purpose by its addition to the context of a scene, providing sub-text and fitting in with the overall performance arc. The use of leitmotifs is important in supporting this and also allows for a more conjunct flow between the spoken text and the music.”

What do you enjoy about performing two-handers, Josie?

“I much prefer it to performing solo! It allows us more flexibility in staging and the energy.

“It’s a wonderfully collaborative experience as we learn to bounce off each other. Imogen accuses me of giving her all the lines that I don’t want to learn, but that’s absolutely not true!

“It’s also great to build a relationship with the audience over the course of the play. There’s no fourth wall.”

What did your lockdown What Makes Me Woman online monologue project involve, Imogen? 

“I took the lead on this project, where a collection of original monologues was rehearsed and performed online on the subject of ‘What Makes Me Woman’.

“We asked for submissions and received an eclectic range of different writing styles and varied topics related to the given title. After receiving the submissions, we posted a call-out for performers and directors. Short summaries of the monologues were given so people could choose a first and second option for which monologue they were most interested in performing/directing.

“After putting the different teams together, it was up to them to rehearse and record:  they had a choice on how much editing they would like to do and the style in which they recorded it.

“Also note that none of these teams had met before.”

Who took part, Imogen?

“Our writers, performers and directors were a mix of ages and levels of experience – we had well-seasoned and experienced theatre-makers and we also had those who wanted to try their hand at something new.

“Wanting to promote a self-space where people could explore this and help each other with nurturing these skills was something important to the project.”

When was the work premiered, Imogen?

“We held a premiere in May of all the monologues online and hosted a Q&A afterwards to allow all the teams to meet and to discuss what the process had been like.

“Something that struck us was the community we had created. We weren’t entirely sure what the project would be like, but it was beautiful. A collection of voices from places near and far coming together to celebrate, commiserate and contemplate what it meant for them to be a woman.”

“There is so much that resonates for woman,” says Josie Campbell of Shakespeare’s Will

Who have you had as guests and what have you discussed in Coffee Morning Chats, your series of Zoom sessions where you talk to theatre makers about claiming their space within the industry, Imogen?

“Coffee Morning Chats was something we wanted to start after our ”What Makes Me Woman’ project. We wanted to continue this idea of a community through arts and conversation.

“We started pre-recording these and asked some of our fellow artists to join. However, we have had to take a hiatus with this when starting our tour of Shakespeare’s Will. It is something we want to continue but have put on the back burner, so watch this space!”

What are your upcoming plans, Josie?

“This autumn, I’m off to Central [School of Speech and Drama, London] to do an MA in Training and Coaching Actors, while Imogen returns to her job as a performing arts teacher in the West Midlands.

“But we will continue to pop up when we can, plus hopefully we’ll launch schools’ workshops. We’re also beginning to develop our own material.”

Four facts about Josie Campbell

1. At the 2019 Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre season at the Eye of York, Josie performed “on the wagon” as part of the pre-show entertainment in Shakespeare’s Village as Third Witch in the opening scene of Macbeth. Director Eleanor Ball is now executive producer of the Marilyn 60 project, One Night With Marilyn.

2.Josie is the voice of Oxford Park & Ride. “I used to be a voiceover artist, but my microphone has been packed away for a while as I much prefer live theatre performance,” she says.

3. In Dubai, Josie performed in the Short and Sweet Festival and directed Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for Dubai Drama Group.

4. Josie has not read Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell’s family drama about William Shakespeare, his wife Agnes Hathwey (also called Anne Hathaway) and their grief over the death of their son Hamnet. “But everyone keeps telling me to read it. It’s next on my list!” she says.

Four facts about Imogen Hope

1.Actor, writer, director, producer, musician and teacher Imogen is from Northallerton, North Yorkshire .

2. She studied music (first study, singer) at the University of York, graduating in 2020.

3. At present, she is based between North Yorkshire and the West Midlands because of her job down there, teaching performing arts to pupils aged eight to 18.

4. On Zoom, she performed in Thunk-It Theatre’s project Common Ground for the National Student Drama Festival.

Little Britches Theatre Company in Shakespeare’s Will, at Hearts of Ampleforth, near Helmsley, August 15 at 2.30pm. Tickets cost £15, including afternoon tea, from the café or on 01439 788166; cash only. Proceeds will go to Cancer Research UK.