Capturing a slice of time
When Jan Farmery’s Aunt Min eased herself out of her whalebone corset, freeing her voluminous bosoms, stomach and thighs from the long hours of daytime incarceration, little can she have imagined that her young niece was spying on her from beneath the sheets and eiderdown of her bed.
Less still can she have imagined that the scene, from a post-war Christmas in the Farmery household, would one day be written down and performed for audiences of complete strangers as part of a series of readings making up a show called A Slice of Treacle Tart.
Despite the intimate nature of the revelations and the comic spin put on them, Jan is confident her beloved aunt - and other members of her family brought back to life through the readings - wouldn’t be offended.
It’s a question she has returned to repeatedly during the two years she has spent perfecting the 30 or so childhood reflections, or vignettes, that make up A Slice of Treacle Tart.
“It’s something that has dogged me all the way through,” she says. “I hope they would see the whole thing as being done with great love and care.
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“I think they would be amused. For instance, my grandmother would have had no idea that in a tea scene I relate I thought I was Alice in Wonderland.
Doing it the way I have chosen to do it there’s no judgement. I do all the voices for them as I remember them too, how they sounded to me as a child: my grandmother short and sharp and my grandfather softer. I have tried to capture the personalities I remember. It’s definitely me, reading it, but there is quite a lot of interpretation, movement and energy.”
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To illustrate the point she slips into the Cockney voices of her grandparents. It’s uncanny and slightly unnerving, so instant and evocative is the transformation.
Jan, who lives near Halesworth, is a performer, theatre director, drama tutor, speech coach and writer of some note. She was one of the founders of Eastern Angles, the first professional touring company for the eastern region, has worked for the Royal Opera House, appeared in television productions from Lovejoy to Miss Marple and Vanity Fair and wrote and performed an acclaimed one-woman show based on the life of Dorothy Wordsworth.
Her latest venture was inspired when her rich childhood memories began to loom so large in her mind that she felt compelled to write them down.
“They’re all funny things really,” she says. “The listener is back there with me; they return to the past with me. It is not nostalgic or about the ‘good old days’, I am just reflecting it how it was when I was there.
“It is all done purely on recollection of memories but it is not really rooted in any one time. The vignettes cover universal themes - anyone who has ever had a childhood can relate to them. Whether they are 18 or 80 it doesn’t matter.
“An era may define you but the things that consume you and you remember are the same for any child. My memories relates to a time just after the Second World War but there are wars now too. Children have fathers fighting in Afghanistan these days. It is not just for people in their 60s. In a way, these days we get stuck in the modern and but we are what we were - it is an ever-building story.
“A lot of the scenes are evocative and take in moving moments. The most intriguing thing for me is that I have spent two years in the company of mum and dad, intimately. I have re-met them and it has made me realise what a shadowy figure my mother comes out as and how big a factor in my life my father was. Treacle Tart was what he called me. It’s Cockney rhyming slang for sweetheart. It was always dad I was waiting for and dad who would put things right.
“I suppose writing this made me realise how much I loved them all really, not just my parents but my aunts, uncle and grandparents too. As a child you accept they are there but now, as an adult, I have gone back to tea with them, gone back to times snuggling up with them. There are days when you wish you really could go back.”
Jan has done a preview performance of the 75-minute show, which was well-received, and is now booking dates for a tour. She thinks the readings would go down well with WIs and other community groups but she is also keen to take A Slice of Treacle Tart to bigger venues, as she did with The Sister, her show focusing on the life of Dorothy Wordsworth, which featured in Melvyn Bragg’s Wordsworth Day at the Cheltenham Literary Festival before going to the Edinburgh Festival, touring the UK and US, completing its travels ‘off’ Broadway.
Jan relates to Dotty, as she affectionately calls her, in a big way, just as she does another woman from literary history, Beatrix Potter, who she is currently working on another performed presentation about.
She sees certain parallels between her own life and those of Dorothy and Beatrix, both women who in different ways led lonely lives touched by sadness.
“I seem to be attracted to lone women who can be quite heavy going when they need to be - and very amusing,” she says.
Jan, who grew up in Woodford Green, was an only child, brought up in the belief that a ‘good’ child should be seen but not heard. Without siblings to worry about she had plenty of time to observe what was going on around her and developed a tendency to live through her imagination.
“I was a very self-contained child,” she says. “I wouldn’t say I was lonely but I was alone a lot. I learned to come up with ideas to amuse myself.
“My parents were of their generation: they loved me but you did not feel the love terribly. They took great care of me and they were very good parents but they were clear about what my role in life should be. They said I should go into something that was going to earn me a living. My mother always said, ‘what are you going to do if you don’t marry?’ They felt you had got to be ready for whatever life throws at you. You had got to have a profession.”
Jan’s parents had a love of the theatre and her father played the piano so she was surrounded by music and performance from an early age. It wasn’t long before she joined an amateur dramatic society.
When she left St Mary’s Convent in Woodford (where she was a non-Catholic pupil on a scholarship) she studied spoken English and drama at Nottingham University, got a teaching certificate and did a short course in community theatre.
She remembers the convent as being an alien environment initially.
“I had a fear of nuns,” she recalls. “When my mother told me I was going to the convent I nearly died. Mother said that was the place they would teach me to be a lady. They didn’t, of course, but it was the place I met Sister Lucy, who was my English teacher and a massive inspiration to me. It was thanks to her that my love of English literature and drama was nurtured.”
Despite her mother’s belief that she might never marry Jan did wed and went on to have a son before becoming a freelance performer in 1980, by which time she was living in Suffolk.
She soon ended up working at the Wolsey Theatre with the Theatre in Education team, where she met her great friend and professional collaborator Marjorie Butters.
“I was helping to administer Theatre in Education and went on to be PR for the theatre itself and it was then that the opportunity to start Eastern Angles came up and that is where this whole career started really,” she says.
“From that moment on I knew I did not want to become a repertory actress. I wanted to do original work. I wanted to do things I could bring something to. I left the Wolsey for Eastern Angles and just went for broke. At the time I thought it was either massively brave or stupid but time has proved it was a great thing to do.
“I had five years with Eastern Angles. I learned the business there, devising shows and rehearsing them, moving sets in and out of the venues, travelling. It taught me everything about touring. It was great learning period but eventually I wanted to move on and wanted to get on with some of my own work.
“I decided what I would really like to do would be a one-person show. I just knew I wanted to do it. A great friend of mine gave me the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth to read. I thought, my goodness, I could really tap into something about this woman. There is something I recognise in her.
“I made it known I was going to do a one-person show on Dorothy Wordsworth and someone working at the Wolsey at the time said Melvyn Bragg was having a Wordsworth day at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. I devoted a year to put the show together. It was accepted for the festival and was in the programme between Margaret Drabble and Simon Callow. I was Dorothy and took her from age 17 through to 60, when we now know that she had Alzheimer’s.
“I took the script completely from her own words and letters. It was well-received. It went to the Edinburgh Festival after Cheltenham and because of good reviews it had there I was able to take it throughout the UK and out to the States. It was terrific and fitted into the whole thing about my desire to do original work. I did identify very strongly with her. When you do a one person show you do need that to understand the person.”
Around that time Jan got some television jobs but although the pay was good and it produced some useful contacts her heart was in live theatre. A job with the National Trust, performing in productions designed to bring the history of properties to life through drama and later, directing the company, led to a collaboration with the Royal Opera House and the offer of work with them. Through that, Jan ended up as drama director for the Met Course, an opera education programme run in conjunction with the Metropolitan Opera House, New York.
“I was doing the odd bit of TV and also at that time I started my own business, called Jan Farmery Associates, which taught presentation and communication skills in the corporate world. I set that company up in 1990 and only gave it up last year to go back to my creative roots.
“The business work took me all over the world and kept me very busy,” she says. “It was just me and Marjorie competing for contracts with massive training companies who had all sorts of resources at their disposal. We did not have any of that but we still managed to pick off Microsoft - two women from Suffolk picked up the largest company there could possibly be! I think it was because I had devised a programme of training based on all my drama background. It was totally different from anything they would have got from anyone else. We went to South Africa, Dubai, Israel, Turkey and not so exotic-sounding Reading.
“It kept me busy but I never lost that creative need. I decided about five years ago that I could see the end of this and I wanted to get back to creative work so I started to devise creative writing courses. It is about finding the creative pulse in people that I believe is in everybody. It develops over a long period of time and you find your style but at the end of the course people have written something they are amazed by. It is the start of a journey and I am very keen to do more of that.”
In July she is running a creative writing workshop at Haydon Bridge in Northumberland as part of the John Martin Heritage Festival. Martin was a celebrated Victorian artist, whose apocalyptic works are enjoying a resurgence of interest and will be featured at Tate Britain later in the year as part of The Great British Art Debate.
Closer to home, Jan has also started a venture at The Harmony Centre in Walpole, called The Healing Pen, which is writing as therapy for people who feel stressed or stuck in a rut.
And then there is some unfinished Treacle Tart.
The 12 ‘slices’ in the first show represent about half of those she has written. Jan is hoping the public will have the appetite for a second helping, which, like the first set of readings, will be dedicated to her life’s biggest influences, her mum and dad, grandparents, aunts and uncle.
? For booking and further information about Jan Farmery and A Slice of Treacle Tart visit www.janfarmery.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org.