Ann FitzGerald on how a youth theatre researched Cider With Rosie.
Annie Lee (nee Light): parlour maid, housekeeper, deserted wife of Reginald Lee, mother of his four children (Francis, Jack, Laurie, Tony) and step-mother to Marjorie, Dorothy, Phyllis, Harold, Reg, loving, scatty, warm-hearted, quick-tempered, a dreamer, a romantic, has been immortalised in her son's autobiographical Cider With Rosie and become a familiar figure to generations of GCSE students.
But few of them can have had such a penetrating insight into the book's mercurial central character as the members of Stage Two Youth Theatre, at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham.
They are currently rehearsing their production of Cider (based on Nick Darke's second adaptation and the only one Laurie Lee would accept being published).
Their starting point was to browse through Annie's album, one of the many scrapbooks she worked on in winter evenings round the fire. She lovingly pasted in clippings from newspapers - pictures of "the gentry" and stars of the stage, postcards of picturesque places, the odd family photograph, many a poem culled from magazines, and a long article on "the centenary of Percy Bysshe Shelley".
Then, perfectly illustrating the glorious bran-tub of her mind, there are two pages of pencil squiggles which turn out to be a competition she did with the children to see who could draw the best picture of a pig, keeping their eyes closed. She has written their names beside the results.
The scrapbook has come down through Annie's side of the family from her brother Charles (Uncle Charlie of Laurie's childhood), who lived in the neighbouring village of Sheepscombe. His son Charles, Laurie's cousin, is the grandfather of Liz Light, who runs Stage Two Youth Theatre.
The cast have enjoyed two visits to Charles's home, looking at family photographs and reminiscing with him and his wife, Elisabeth, about visits from Laurie's side of the family when all the children had to pile into the only two beds available.
Jeremy Hancock (who plays the grown-up Laurie, the narrator) says: "Talking to Liz's grandparents really helped us to understand the book. There was such an innocence about things like sharing a bed. Now there'd be cries of 'Ughhh' but they accepted it quite naturally. It was part of the wonderful family warmth they had."
Careful study of the book and the play have been a required background to rehearsals, done with an eagerness that teachers trying to extract homework from reluctant 16-year-olds will envy. Jeremy Hancock explains that they worked in three groups on the male characters, the female characters, and the family tree. "We had to present one side of writing on each character plus quotations of things they said or other people said about them, to back up our ideas. "
Insights emerged, as Nick Allcock (who plays Laurie as a boy) reveals: "I realised that Harold, the step-son from the other mother, was different - more quiet. It was the things he didn't do, or wasn't mentioned as being part of, that gave me this feeling about him."
Naomi Gudge, "thrilled" to get the part of Annie, has immersed herself in the scrapbook. "She's such a lovely character, so unpredictable, and the album really shows up her many-sided quality. We read short extracts from Cider with Rosie at primary school but I'd never really studied it before, and now I think I can see the sad side of her: in charge of this enormous family, deserted by her husband, and then one by one the children leave and she becomes even more eccentric.
"Liz's grandmother told us how she was regarded as quite strange in the village - she would walk two miles to give someone a cup of water. Some found her highly entertaining, others despaired of her."
While they grimace at the distances walked, and the general physical harshness of people's lives, these modern city children sigh enviously for the sense of family closeness. "It must have been wonderful to live in such a close-knit family," Naomi says, "especially for someone like me, an only child." Later, Catherine Skinner ("Marge") and Victoria Sayce ("Doth"), both single children of single parents, agreed that "it is the atmosphere of that whole, wonderful family" that is their most striking impression. "That scene when we're sitting round listening to Mother telling us stories of her time in service - it feels so happy," Victoria says wistfully.
Catherine adds: "Laurie Lee says the book is 'the end of a thousand years of life' and he's right. It's such a different world now, and it's been really special getting to know people who lived that life and being able to understand it, and its traditions."
Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham from July 18 to 22. Tickets: 0121 440 3838. Also Edinburgh Festival Fringe August 14-26 (except Sunday 20), Roxburgh Studio at 6 pm. Tickets: 0131 226 5257.