Stage Struck

Although you wouldn’t know it to look at the schedule for the Yesterday TV channel but it’s now more than 70 years since the Second World War ended. As this year’s Remembrance Day approaches and the reflection the commemoration prompts takes place I am finding it increasingly uncomfortable that a conflict which lasted six years, in which over 60 million people died and that saw conflict on every continent apart from Antarctica, appears to be in the process of being filtered down to a handful of images: Hitler maniacally gesticulating at Nuremburg, Churchill with his cigar, the Spitfire, the blitz, the D-Day beaches and, perhaps most indelibly, the walking skeletons and piles of bodies in the death camps.

As living memory becomes history this distillation to a few iconic images and their accompanying narratives is perhaps inevitable but when approximately three-quarters of the world’s population were effected by WW2 how can just a handful of stories hope to fully inform us of the impact of such tumultuous times on people’s lives? Of course they cannot, as the number of amazing, miraculous or tragic stories which still regularly emerge should remind us. In addition to the individual stories which have lain hidden until the discovery of a diary or cache of letters reveals them what also occasionally re-emerge are stories which were once well known but which, for one reason or another, have slipped out of the collective consciousness.

One such story is that of pianist Myra Hess and the concerts she organised in London from 1939 until 1945. Given that she shared her surname with the German Deputy Fuhrer who was to fly to Britain in 1941 on a mission, the purpose of which has never fully been explained, you might be excused for assuming that Hess was German, but she was actually born in London in 1890.

Something of a musical prodigy – she began to learn the piano at the age of five and was admitted to the Guildhall School of Music just two years later – Hess was a well known pianist in both Britain and the USA by the time war broke out in 1939. Resident in London during the blitz Hess reacted stoically to the government’s hysterical closing of all the capital’s theatres by organising lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.

Over the course of the six years of the war over 1600 concerts took place in that rather unusual venue with Hess herself performing 150 of them. At the time the concerts were seen as part of London’s defiant resistance but have since largely faded from the mythology. That omission is rectified by Admission One Shilling, a show written by Hess’s great nephew, which tells the extraordinary story of Myra Hess and the concerts which kept London enthralled.

Hess never wrote an autobiography but Nigel Hess has nevertheless ensured that the show accurately portrays his great aunt’s thoughts and feelings by using the transcripts of the numerous newspaper interviews she conducted plus the surviving BBC broadcasts in which she speaks before playing. The one hour show for a single performer, accompanied by a pianist, is the result and will be at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds on December 3rd when BAFTA award winning actress Patricia Routledge, whom most will best remember as the dreadful Hyacinth Bucket in the BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, will play Hess. Routledge is on record as saying how keen she was to play Hess as she remembers seeing Hess play when Routledge herself was still a schoolgirl.

International concert pianist Piers Lane will be playing the piano alongside Routledge. Lane has been a soloist at The Proms on five occasions and was director of the National Gallery’s Myra Hess day from its inception in 2006 until 2013. Admission One Shilling is therefore a labour very dear to his heart as it was at the National that it was first performed. If you require more evidence of this show’s pedigree then we can add add director Christopher Luscombe’s name to the list as he has a string of West End credits to his name and is more usually to be found working in The Globe Theatre in London.

It is hardly surprising then that ticket sales for this show have been strong but as I write there is still the opportunity to familiarise yourself with this lesser known story from Britain’s wartime history.

Ticket prices range from £19 – £25 and are available online from the Apex box office at www.theapex.co.uk or by calling 01284 758 000.