Pateley Bridge Dramatic Society reveal World War II mystery

Pateley Bridge Dramatic Society has a stellar history of edging away from traditional amdram parameters to deliver innovative, thought-provoking productions - and their latest performance is a classic example of taking on a challenge with courage, commitment and skill.

By Janet Harrison
Tuesday, 21st June 2022, 9:33 am
Pateley Bridge Dramatic Society perform The Stray. Picture: Ian Peacock.
Pateley Bridge Dramatic Society perform The Stray. Picture: Ian Peacock.

A talented team of actors - plus a dedicated backstage crew - rise impressively to that challenge in the Society’s compelling and complex wartime drama The Stray.

An original play commissioned by North Yorkshire County Council, The Stray is written by award-winning Pateley playwright Keith Burton, with valuable input from Harrogate historian Malcolm Neesam.

It is based on the wartime bombing of the town’s Majestic Hotel in September 1940 - the only bombs to fall on Harrogate for the entire duration of the war.

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Pateley Bridge Dramatic Society perform The Stray. Picture: Ian Peacock.

Keith, who also directs the play, builds on the facts of the mission to construct an intriguing hypothesis - was Harrogate the victim of a stray bomber or was there a secret intelligence factor?

The historical reality is that during the war, Harrogate featured in the Coats Mission - a top secret plan for the evacuation of the Royal family from London. Could the leaking of these details have led to Harrogate becoming a target? The Stray takes the audience from the factual to the possible via the apparently innocuous setting of the Briggs family guesthouse and its multi-dimensional residents.

Intelligence Officer Sub Lt Mary Stephens, billeted in the guesthouse, is forensically played by Carol Bailey who quickly conveys her gift for uncovering hidden secrets.

She becomes suspicious when debonair Sqn Ldr Harry Andrews - a smoothly dapper Ben Derrick in brilliant form - turns up and sweeps her best friend and daughter of the house Frances Briggs off her feet. Carol, in a razor sharp performance, moves to red alert when he takes a pointed interest in the radio activity of Frances’ autistic brother Eugene Briggs.

Sally Smith, excellent as the compassionate but feisty Frances, and Chris Iredale as Eugene skilfully convey their special sibling relationship with genuine warmth.

Chris makes a highly impressive stage debut in this difficult role with a sensitive and cleverly nuanced portrayal of Eugene’s autistic traits - notably his fixation with the radio. The fact that he’s new to acting is astonishing as this is such a superbly accomplished, multi-faceted performance which had the audience in its grip right from the opening scene.

Anchoring the entire household is down to earth proprietor and local councillor Joe Briggs, played by a rock solid Michael Thorne with wonderfully blunt Yorkshire attitude - yet still touchingly protective of his son. These five actors bounce off each other with great flair - frequently interrupted by jilted RAF driver Phil Wilson, a whirlwind performance by Alan Young who delivers an entertaining masterclass in Cockney irritation.

Eugene’s radio activity and its possible consequences are at the heart of the story’s progression and Ben Derrick becomes a quietly charming tour de force as the mystery unravels around Sqn Ldr Andrews. Hero or zero? Meanwhile, the plot is interspersed with segments from high command, involving two senior mandarins - Nicola Good as Dame Julia Chisholm (SIS) and Steve Hunt as Sir Charles Thurogood (Air Ministry) master the art of upper crustdom perfectly. Theirs is a class act, on every level.

The final scene sees a brief but moving appearance by the household’s youngest son Donald Briggs, ably played by Jonathan Levy. He makes his mark poignantly well as the young infantryman reunited with his family at Christmas. Even in his short time on stage, Jonathan radiated charisma and dramatic talent - and it is heartening to see the next generation step up with such ability and confidence.

The Stray is a gripping, intricate story of history and mystery, crafted by a fine author and delivered by an excellent team of actors whose chemistry is palpable. Hats off also to the backstage team, led by Justin Enthoven and Alan Stewart, who had to deal with the logistical difficulties of shifting from their home at the Pateley Playhouse - currently under renovation - to the Memorial Hall.

They - plus the technical and wardrobe teams - rose heroically to the multiple practical challenges involved. A triumph all round.

Cheryl Barber