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Thursday, 21 September 2017 09:14

Canary, A Teenage response

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Fun in the Oven Theatre Company presented Canary at The Witham on Wednesday 13 September 2017. Our reviewer Evie Brenkley (aged 14) reviews...

With bright yellow faces and dark blue overalls, the highly talented actresses of ‘Canary’ certainly caught one’s eye, and the play was equally striking. Darkly comedic and fabulous, the play was based on the ‘Canary Girls’ - brave women called upon during WW1 in a desperate time of need. When desperate for soldiers, Britain had raided all of its factories for men - and had no-one doing important jobs such as making the weaponry and explosives needed to fight. Once domestic slaves, the girls were now the key to pulling through and winning the war, making munitions and for the front line. Although it gave them illnesses, including yellow skin due to the toxic poisoning, many women enjoyed their new job as it gave them independence and a chance to live their life as their own. The play really gave us an in-depth detail of their lives and the entire thing was really fascinating. If you ever get the chance to go and see it - do, it is very enlightening and well worth watching.

The first part of the play is a sort of advert for the Canary Girls, with a narrator giving the girls life as they go about their daily tasks. This all changes, however, when an air raid strikes and the girls are left alone - just the three of them. When the actresses really discover themselves, we watch some heart-wrenching material whilst connecting to them on an emotional level. The entire play is very well choreographed and put together, constantly hilarious. The script was well written too and really emphasised showing us the women’s lives and also how they were being treated. The majority of it was still applicable to today’s society, making the play really thought-provoking at so many stages.

When the end of the air raid, and then the war was announced, everybody was given a short break, before the audience was allowed back into the theatre for a Q&A session with the actresses and their director. This was very interesting and allowed us all to gain a deeper understanding of the play. They all told us that they had such good fun producing the play, and improvising in rehearsals to discover their characters. They are still working on the final play, to make the whole thing really exciting so that “no one ever leaves the room.”

The audience loved it too, and it struck the teenagers there in particular. One of them told me they “thought the subject matter was very interesting and the physical way it was portrayed was excellent”. Another said, “the lighting flowed very clearly, and it came together well with the sound and the acting”. Certainly, the overriding consensus from all was that the play was incredibly enjoyable.

‘Canary’ has an excellent mix of fact and fiction, funny and heartbreaking; and the contrast between happy and sad is excellently portrayed. It is very well put together, with wonderful character development and the plot line is almost faultless, with every concept flowing together nicely. Considering this is still a work in progress, I can’t wait to see it develop and flourish in the future.


Friday, 15 September 2017 12:07

The Highlights Craft Tour 2017 - Luminosity training day

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Highlights Craft Tour 2017 - Luminosity.  

Promoters’ Training Day 

It’s approaching that time of year again, when The Witham will be welcoming the much anticipated Highlights Contemporary Craft Tour for 2017. Entitled “Luminosity”, this year’s exhibition is based around the theme of light and how the seven artists involved manipulate light as a crucial element or medium in their work.

In preparation for the exhibition The Witham staff members, Sarah and Halle, and volunteer, Marilyn, attended a Promoters Training Day to learn more.

After a pleasantly scenic journey across the tops to Shap, The Withamites joined a mixed group of staff and volunteers from other organisations, to be welcomed by Highlights Craft Tour officer Karen Babayan. One of the artists featuring in the tour, glass engraver Heather Gillespie, was also present and had brought along an exquisite vase, Zostera.  An indication of the quality of Heather’s work is that it is sold in shops such as Harrods and Liberty. Karen has the unenviable job of transporting Heather’s precious vase from place to place and we were very careful to view it from a respectful - and safe - distance. After all this was a vase with a name!

Karen began by giving an overview of the exhibition and the artists and craftspeople involved.  These include five exhibitors who are based in the North of England and two International artists, Statira Jazayeri from Sweden and Evagelia Hagikalfa from Greece. The ‘homegrown’ artists are Heather, Stuart Langley, Jason Taylor, Jan Hopkins and Sandra Balmer. Their work is very diverse and includes sculptural textiles, film and projection, glass, electronics and neon installations. The examples Karen showed on screen indicated that this will be a very special event of a kind we don’t often see in Teesdale and certainly whetted the appetite of all present.

It was interesting too, to hear the stories behind some of the works. There is the artist inspired by DH Lawrence’s Women in Love, and another who references genetics in her work, almost as an homage to her father and his interest in rabbit breeding. As Heather was present, she was able to describe the influences behind her own work which are largely marine based, such as the lovely seagrass-inspired engraving on her vase. Zostera, by the way, is a Japanese seagrass.

Heather went on to talk about her path as an artist and her year in the Czech Republic learning the ancient art of copper wheel glass engraving. Although this was no longer taught in the UK, thanks to Heather there are now a number of people practising this demanding craft.

Then came the hands on part of the day, as everyone was given the chance to try glass sandblasting. Following Heather’s instructions we tried to channel our inner artist by cutting a design on sticky plastic wrapped around a small glass. This was then sandblasted in Heather’s portable machine and judging by the smiles everyone enjoyed the activity and the results.

Following a delicious lunch - with many thanks to those responsible – the nitty-gritty of hosting the exhibition was mapped out, with considerations from risk-assessment, to selling work, the associated education programme and workshops being discussed. Thoroughly briefed and looking forward to seeing the exhibition in the flesh, the day ended as we left an anxious-looking Karen carefully re-packing Zostera in reams of bubble wrap and polystyrene.

At some point during the day, everyone had the opportunity to cross the road to The Old Courthouse, Shap’s own community arts building. An unloved building due to be demolished to make way for housing, it was saved by community action and brought back into use as a multi-purpose space. After a lot of hard work it now houses a library with computers, a gallery area and meeting spaces and is a facility the community can be proud of.

As Karen explained in her introduction, Highlights rural touring scheme aims to promote professional events in rural places, so that people living outside the main centres have access to high-quality arts experiences. And why shouldn’t we? Running from the 14th of October until the 4th of November, “Luminosity” certainly promises to be an outstanding exhibition and we in Teesdale are very fortunate to have the opportunity to enjoy it. Spread the word and we’ll see you there...

Thank you to volunteer Marilyn Normanton for this blog post about the day!

Wednesday, 16 August 2017 16:51

Happy Times at The Witham by Harriet Sams

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A good friend of mine messaged me and said, the Peatbog Faeries are playing in your neck of the woods at some place called The Witham, want to come with me?

Being from the neighbouring area, it seems like I’ve known about the Witham for a long time. It’s a bit like KitKats, I don’t recall a time that I ever didn’t know about KitKats. They’ve just always been there. Of course, I actually only moved here two and half years ago so there was obviously a time BW. What I’m trying to say is The Witham is one of those venues that just fits so beautifully into life. You want to entertain the kids in the half term? The Witham’ll be doing something. You fancy a bit of theatre? I bet you the Witham will have something on. Or how about a bit of classical music, folk, comedy? Yep, they have it.

The Peatbog Faeries are one of those groups that I’ve always been meaning to go and see, but just hadn’t got round to. So this seemed ideal. And it was. The tickets arrived and we opened them together (because, even though they’d come to my house the letter was in Annie’s name and it’s really not the done thing to open other people’s post, even when I know it’s actually for me. What if it hadn’t been? Oh, the ethical terror.) and it said, rather enigmatically standing ticket. What does that mean? The Witham always has seats, fold-away seats! Being a Peatbog Faerie novice I had no idea that it was impossible to actually sit through a concert. 

In we went to the main hall of the Witham. A place I know well. Here I’ve seen comedy shows, Shakespeare, Alan Bennet, folk music, and the children have been entertained by a magical cleaner. This time it was bare, seatless like a real concert! Ticket holders clung to the edges, unsure of this new, expansive emptiness, yet we saw familiar faces right at the front and so we joined them. And I’m so very glad we did. The concert (for anyone like me, who knew nothing of these boggy Faeries) was folksy, rocky, trancey, dancey. From the first bar to the very last I simply could not stay still. I danced and got sweaty, allowing myself to be carried far away into the land where faeries really do come from peatbogs, and that far from being dead, dour places, peatbogs are filled with cavorting magical creatures that occasionally take human form and come into respectable venues to ensnare hapless wristband wearing humans.


As we left I saw smiling faces all around, I saw that the Witham had played host once again to a very special moment in our rural lives. It is a portal, is this place. It can invite and hold and ensnare and bear witness to quite magical things. It is a place to be glad of and a place to trust with one’s soul, if even for a short snippet of time, as you leave sensibility at the foyer bar and enter into the Room, never to leave the same.

Welcome to The Witham... by Ian McMillan

The Witham's Autumn programme 2017 is introduced by the wonderful Northern Poet Ian McMillan (thank you so much!) with the following words:

I was lucky enough to perform at The Witham in April of this year with my musician mate Luke Carver Goss; we had a fantastic evening and it stuck me at the time, and it continues to strike me, that The Witham is a perfect example of what an arts centre in a small town can be and what it can strive to become. After all, it’s The Witham, not The Withoutham.

I think that arts centres are fun palaces and places of philosophical enquiry; they’re laughter-rooms and labs of new thinking. They’re places where you can grin from ear to ear and they’re spaces where you can stand for a moment and say ‘Do you know, I never thought of that!’ They’re safe and inviting rooms where coffee and cake can be eaten and drunk and they’re performance areas and galleries that can enhance your day or your evening. They remind us the arts are not just the cherry on the cake: they are the cake itself.

And The Witham is all these things. We’re living in uncertain times when, more than ever, we’re asking ourselves, as a country and as a North, who we are, and arts centres can be part of that enquiry. A place like The Witham can present a town and a region back to itself so that the people of Barnard Castle and beyond become part of the story.

Long may The Witham continue to thrive; visit it regularly, cherish it, challenge it, enjoy it.

And then have some more lovely cake.

I must stop talking about cake.

Ian McMillan      @IMcMillan


The Witham launches Magic of Illustration exhibition, bringing books to life, with characters and drawings by local and nationally celebrated artists and illustrators in the gallery from Thursday 20 July – Saturday 12 August 2017. 

With illustrations from 1970s to the current day, visitors can experience the journey of the illustrator when developing a children’s book, from the initial sketches and story boards to the completed published book. This exhibition will reveal all the hard work and creativity that is required to bring characters to life!

The exhibitions will showcase a range of inspirational works by six illustrators, all living in, or from the North. This includes original works by renowned children’s illustrator, Linda Birch, the illustrator of the much-loved Bagpuss series, as well as creator of the Simon and the Witch, Jackanory and more than 150 other books including Conker, by Warhorse author Michael Morpurgo, which won an award in Children’s Books of the Year, and Who Shot Queen Victoria? by Horrible Histories author Terry Deary.

Also exhibiting is Stuart Trotter, an experienced illustrator, author and designer who has worked on family favourites from classic titles to Disney characters, including Winnie the Pooh, Wallace and Gromit, Noddy, Thomas the Tank Engine, Topsy and Tim, Kipper, Postman Pat, and is now the author and illustrator of Rupert Bear for Egmont’s Rupert Bear Annual.

Also bringing his beautiful contemporary illustrations is Matthew Swan, a painter and cartoonist based in London having studied at Edinburgh College of Art. His comic 'Parsley Girl: Carrots' was nominated for the Young People's Comic Award 2016.

The Witham are delighted to welcome Sharron Bates, a freelance artist and illustrator who lives and works in County Durham. A recent graduate from Cleveland College of Art & Design, Sharron exhibits her work in both Britain and internationally and will be bringing her story boards and illustrations for her book, Where’s Brian? Sharron is also bringing a children’s illustration workshop to The Witham on Wednesday 9th August.

The Magic of Illustration also includes the illustrator, Liz Million, who is from Darlington and famed for her popular books Be Quiet Belinda and Not So Silly Sausage, and will be at Barnard Castle library for an Illustration workshop will be leading story and illustration events at libraries across County Durham next week.

Cumbrian artist Catherine Beaumont is the final illustrator with beautiful watercolours to adds an element of beautiful fantasy to the Magic of Illustration exhibition, inspired by Fairy tales, myths and legends.

Come to enjoy the Magic of Illustration Exhibition from 10am to 4pm, Tuesday to Saturday (free admission) or call on 01833 631107. You can also email for more information.


 The Summer of Stories menu development workshop with the school council from Green Lane School in Barnard Castle

Thank you to Heather and Rosie for this lovely blog post about today's menu development workshop, inspired by Fairy tales, myths and legends... and do come to the Café to enjoy tasting the dishes that the children dreamed up with their fantastic imaginations! Thank you too to Teesdale Area Action Partnership and the James Knott Trust for your support.

Today Green Lane School Council went to the Witham to do a project for the café. We had to think of lots of ideas for 3 different meals, which included a main course, dessert and a drink, for myths, legends & fairy tales. Firstly, we had to come up with characters or stories that were either fairy tales, myths or legends. Next, we had to get into groups of three and design and name different foods and drink that were related to the three topics. After we had to share our ideas with everybody in the room, we listened to all the great suggestions and names. Then we had to choose one of each of our groups’ ideas for the summer stories’ menu and design it.

At the end, we had some delicious shortbread which the café chefs had made that morning. Finally, we had our picture taken by the Mercury. We all had a lovely time and we would like to say thank you to the staff of the Witham for having us. 

By Heather Brown & Rosie Payne, Year 6, Green Lane School.


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