The ‘Play’, as we all know, has nothing at all to do with Thelwall Morris Men. The fact that the Mummers are exclusively drawn from said Morris Men is purely statistical chance. Of course, if you believe that, you might even be persuaded that the play is indeed a traditional play. Traditional in style it may be, but the origins of the play are shrouded in the recent rather than far distant past.
The play was conceived one summer evening in the seventies (even though recent, the actual date is forgotten, as befits tradition) when Thelwall Morris Men were just finishing a spot at a favourite venue, the Bells of Peover. The landlord happened to ask Ernie Whalley if he knew anyone who would perform a Mummers Play for him at Christmas. In his usual self-effacing manner, Ernie, quick as a flash, said ‘We will’. He then presented this to the side as a fait accompli and went off to bend his copywriting skills to creating a suitable play.
Although new, the play does follow the traditional lines but incorporates contemporary allusions as all the old plays presumably did. We look forward to the day when academics find themselves searching the archives for the origin of the Turkish Knight’s words ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’! . Ernie did a good job. The play holds together very well and stands unashamed alongside its much older brethren.
The play was duly performed at the ‘Bells’ the following Christmas and the evening was made an occasion by the landlord providing sandwiches and mince pies for the Mummers, as he did each succeeding year, and each time there was enough to feed the whole pub. The success of that evening prompted the Mummers to expand their activities the following year, performing it at several pubs in and around Warrington.
Although the play was performed at the Bells of Peover each Christmas for many years, when the landlord changed the atmosphere changed, too - the mince pies failed to appear and eventually the Mummers decided to drop the Knutsford evening from the programme.
After a couple of years Ernie introduced an extended version of the play which included a number of supernumerary characters, including the crippled beggar ‘Fat and Fine’. This role was magnificently filled by Nick ‘Spider Legs’ Tamblin, who at the first dress rehearsal had the cast reeling about helpless with laughter – without uttering a word! The extended version never felt comfortable and after a couple of years the original version was reinstated but with the addition of Fat and Fine at the end with the other odd characters. There is a wonderful freedom in performing the play and ad-libs, in addition to those allowed for in the script, are welcomed, as long as they work – and they usually do.
Memorable performances have included Grog who, eschewing the usual Beelzebub character, appeared as the punk rocker ‘Rat Scabies’ instead, complete with a giant safety pin through his head. One evening we had Ernie, as The Doctor, causing uproar by dropping a black pudding, supposedly excised from the Turkish Knight’s trousers, into a young lady’s lap. Jeremy, not noted for his technological wizardry, created a device which would allow the dragon to puff on a cigar without subjecting Jeremy himself to the smoke. There was the night the play was performed without the Doctor! It had become the tradition that the Doctor would dress in such a way that he could go and sit in the bar, unrecognised, before the Mummersarrived, so that, in answer to the Mummers requested for a Doctor, he could stride out from among the onlookers, to their amazement, to go and cure the Turkish Knight. On the night in question the Doctor chose the wrong pub to sit in, a triumph of corporate ad-libbing followed.
Other traditions grew up around the play, not all of them visible to the public. The supernumeraries who appear at the end of the play stay outside the pub awaiting their entrance, in order not to spoil the visual jokes they carry. So, the tradition of Jasper as a very red Beelzebub running round the street terrorising passers-by grew, as did that of Gordon (Johnny Jack) standing outside the door in the cold mumbling ‘What on earth am I doing here…..’
Early on in the life of the play the side decided that collections by the Mummers should be entirely donated to local charities and should be kept separate from the Morris accounts. That practice has continued for twenty or so years.
Although it is not always apparent, all those involved with the play have a great affection for it. Over the years the Mummers have raised in excess of three and a half thousand pounds for local charities and had many a memorable evening along the way. There’s nothing more satisfying than to leave a pub after the performance with the landlord shouting after you, ‘See you next year!’
If the play isn’t traditional, it ought to be, and in the minds of many of the public and the Mummers themselves, it already is.
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