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REVIEW: Red Sky at Sunrise is a stunning combination of Laurie Lee’s words read by actors Anton Lesser and Charlie Hamblett and music performed by Orchestra of the Swan at the RSC

Red Sky at Sunrise: Laurie Lee in Words and Music, Orchestra of the Swan at Live at the RSC, 31st May

STRANGELY, but perhaps aptly as we are in Shakespeare’s house, Live at the RSC, billed as a short festival of music and comedy, is bookended by two literary greats, Laurie Lee and Jane Austen (with the very witty improv show Austentatious bringing the festival to a close on Sunday).

I must confess to being something of a Janeite, and have regularly reread her works and ‘studied’ Colin Frith’s performance as Mr Darcy a number of times (who could forget the moistened white shirt and the lake-dip scene?).

But alas I had not revisited Lee since Cider With Rosie O Level days.

Red Sky at Sunrise
Red Sky at Sunrise

On Wednesday evening that grievous error was gloriously righted with the most beautiful and sublimely soul-quenching experience when I was lucky to be in the sold-out audience for the festival’s opening salvo, Red Sky at Sunrise.

It sees two actors with Stratford roots, veteran Anton Lesser and the upcoming Charlie Hamblett, read excerpts from Lee’s trilogy that starts with Cider With Rosie. The Swan artistic director David Le Page has devised a glorious accompanying musical programme, and he is joined on stage by his fellow musicians dressed as humble country folk to reflect Lee’s rural upbringing in Slad, near Stroud, in the early part of the 20th century.

The novels have been deftly abridged by Deirdre Shields, who has worked with producer Judy Reaves to put the show together.

The narrators take us through Lee’s idealistic youth when he walks out of the Slad valley one midsummer morning to walk to Spain, and ends up fighting in the Spanish Civil War, before returning home in later years.

Maybe it takes a lifetime of living to fully appreciate the extraordinary beauty with which Lee writes.

He manages to ball up an overwhelming fondness for what has been (‘nostalgia’ is too syrupy), with love, heartbreak and humour and shape it into a profound understanding of humanity.

But delivery is everything, and the utter brilliance of the actors – both masters of their material, Anton with a worldly knowingness, Charlie mainlining Lee’s youthful optimism – transports me and the pin-drop-quiet audience to another dimension as they relay choice extracts from Lee’s autobiographical writing… Sometimes a childhood kitchen enriched with baking smells and the hullabaloo of family life… at other times the awfulness of looking into the outraged eyes of a stranger you have just killed during a strange war in a foreign land.

The audience is already riding high on a tsunami of lyrical and cerebral wonder, even without any tunes.

But then, oh, the music. It was almost cruel. The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams? Stop it, our little hearts can’t take any more!

Le Page and musicians were in their element. During the evening, like others, the music has me vacillating wildly between happy thumpy heart and salty-teared chin-wobbles as an exquisite blend of English composers (Elgar, Britten, Holst, et al) mingle with Spanish flavours to counterpoint the readings.

Classical guitarist Mark Ashford comes on twice to dazzle all with his incredible playing. The Latin sounds definitely cranks the passion up as the denouement of the war is reached. Thank God for Williams’ Greensleeves at the end which soothes and assuages.

As Lee’s words echo around my brain and nuzzled into the heart, I am left appreciating… well, life itself.

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