Forget what you think you know about school drama productions. Written by Bafta-winning playwright, Jane Thornton, and produced by the John Godber Company, Archbishop Sentamu Academy’s Ocho is the complex and emotional story of eight men from Hull who left in 1936 to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
With a small plaque in The Guildhall currently the only public monument to the sacrifice, it’s a slice of local history ripe for telling to a wider audience.
“I just thought it was a fantastic story,” Jane says, explaining that there are parallels with the modern world. “The fear of fascism was a genuine threat back then, but the rise of the right is something that I think is happening again.”
The play very much seeks to take the personal and locate it within a wider context. “I did have to work as a conjuror, though,” she adds. “There’s the story of the men’s wives, who I imagined to be friends. It was important to me as a female writer that I should also represent them, because it was an angle that fascinated me. I still can’t totally understand why these men wanted to go and leave behind their families.”
The fear of fascism was a genuine threat back then, but the rise of the right is something that I think is happening again.
Jane Thornton, playwright
It’s the tension at the heart of the play and something the actors have wrestled with.
Archbishop Sentamu pupil Ben Hawley plays the role of Rob Wardle, one of the four men from the city who died during battle. “We do school productions all the time, but this is something else,” he says. “It’s massive and it’s demanding.”
Gaining a place in the production is no easy task. All members of the cast, ranging in age from 15 to 18, auditioned for roles and are members of the school’s Spotlight Ensemble. It’s an opportunity that provides students at the east Hull school with extra time to study drama, to access workshops with professionals and to develop essential skills to help break into the industry.
Music features prominently in the production with a collection of new songs written by Dave Rotheray. Dave was approached by Gary Hammond, a bandmate from days spent in The Beautiful South, to help promote a campaign to raise funds to build an outdoor memorial to the men.
It was about finding the right feel for the scene
Dave Rotheray, musician
Dave says: “It’s the first time I’ve written for the stage. Jane would give me good briefs about the songs, which helped. Maybe the actors needed to be marching or some other form of action, but I would pass the songs back to Jane and she would try them out in rehearsals before giving me feedback.
“It wasn’t like writing my own records, as Jane already had the words. I sometimes had to chop and change them, but it was about finding the right feel for the scene.”
The production debuts in the theatre at Archbishop Sentamu Academy – no stranger to staging world-class performances, the school also hosts Hull 2017 Back To Ours shows every half-term holiday. Ocho then hits the road, heading to Howden and Beverley, followed by a final performance in Barcelona.
“I treat it like I treat a professional production,” Jane says. “I could have written a simpler play, but the actors wouldn’t have learned as much. I’m quite tough on them with things like stagecraft, but their commitment is 100%.”
We want to spread the word about what these men from Hull did.
Ben Hawley, Ocho actor, Archbishop Sentamu Academy
It’s something Ben agrees with. “I’ve met Rob’s daughter-in-law and she’s given me some background to get to know his character, and we’ve done a lot of research as part of our school work. It’s a challenge and a lot of work, but I definitely want to go to drama school and become a professional actor.
“We’re all buzzing for the trip to Spain. I hope we raise the roof and get people to come along and watch. We want to spread the word about what these men from Hull did.”
Ocho is supported by Hull 2017 Major Partner Sewell Group. You can see it at:
Archbishop Sentamu School, Hull: 27-30 June.
Howden Shire Hall, Howden: 5 July.
East Riding Theatre, Beverley: 6 July.
Institute of Arts, Barcelona: 11 July.