Director Ade Morris on what makes the Boxford Masques so special

Thanks to Boxford Masques director Ade Morris for taking time between rehearsals for this year’s production (The River and The Bell from 26 to 30 July) to talk to us.  Ade is an Associate and former Outreach Director at the Watermill Theatre who wrote and directed Lone Flyer which was recently revived by The Watermill and for Jermyn Street Theatre and Hull Truck.

For anyone who hasn’t been to a Boxford Masque before, what makes them special?

History, community and the power of theatre really – history because the Masques were first performed before WW1 by the residents of Boxford working with local writer (and bucolic mystic) Charlotte Peake, and her London friends the Toye brothers – who were musical impresarios in London akin to early Lloyd Webber.  Charlotte had a brief theatrical career before she met and married her husband Harold – who ran the Newbury Museum. This matrimonial connection no doubt threw up the even then historical idea of staging a Masque, a kind of entertainment somewhere between a mystery play and a court spectacular – an idea Charlottte turned into a unique form of storytelling involving drama, dance and music. (Nowadays we’d call it musical theatre).

Anyway, they’d gather during the summer for weekends and started to stage these plays with the locals up on Hoar Hill in a natural amphitheatre. Their cast was a diverse bunch of local amateurs, farmers, craftspeople, children and ambitious amateur theatricals from Boxford and roundabout, a real cross-section of Boxford at the time, and very similar to the cast we have today in many ways – just not so many blacksmiths or cobblers. However we do have a local beer brewer (Indiginous Brewery), a milliner, a lawyer or two, an artist, a gardener, and no doubt several descendants of those original casts…

These entertainments were halted by the outbreak of war and not revived until 2000 when I started to work with Geraldine McCaughrean, the Watermill Theatre,  and a new team of local theatre enthusiasts to re-create the Masques. Again up on Hoar Hill, the Masques were at first adapted from the originals by Geraldine, and the stories expanded and became full length plays with music as they passed through Geraldine’s fertile mind.

We then did three productions at Welford Park thanks to the Puxley family, devisng entirely original plays with Charlotte and Harold as their protagonists, before returning to Boxford itself and the Recreation ground (interesting etymology there – re- creation) where we’ve now produced two more Masques under cover of a huge tent, as rain was beginning to be a problem as the climate changed.

Back at Boxford we have continued to expand the themes of local life first tapped by Charlotte Peake – two years ago it was the discovery of the Boxford Mosaic, this year an entertaining and very funny look at some of the history of Boxford itself – set in the former ‘Bell’ pub and re-discovering the Boxford Wizard, the old railway and the collapse of St Andrews Church Tower – along with a few added stories of our own to add to local folk law and myth in the future perhaps…

The shows have always had original music, before WW1 and now, and they’re always sprung from the imaginations of local writers, and they’ve always involved the locals front and centre, so they couldn’t be more special really, a unique and precious local tradition still thriving in West Berkshire.

How many have you directed now and what do you enjoy about them?

The River and The Bell is the ninth, amazingly. So we’ve now exceeded the number of the original productions, which I think was seven – though records are a little vague.  There’s so much about the Masques to enjoy as they evolve, the meeting of new people, the discovery of their special talents in singing, acting or dancing, or their enthusiasm for making stuff happen, and  helping with the production process.

But I think what I personally enjoy most, as director, is of course the rehearsal process. There was a moment last night during the rehearsal of a music and dance number called ‘Look What We Found’ –  it was ten at night and the Boxford Village Hall was still full of this huge range of people, all still working really hard, all still getting along with each other and trying to make the song and dance as good as it could be with our wonderful choreographer Amy Gough – and I realised that the ‘ What We Found’ of the song was right there in front of me, a special theatrical event forming itself into a unique entertainment just for the sake of doing it, building a community within a community, creating memories, having a lovely laugh, and then sharing all that with the much wider community of the audience over the six shows.

It’s such a delight watching everyone have such a good time in this way, and it makes all the bits that are perhaps not quite so enjoyable (sometimes), all the hard graft from the organising team, from the musicians and composer, the choreographer, the design and production team, it makes all that worthwhile if you just get one chuckle from the audience really.

How are rehearsals going so far?

Terrible!  No – touch wood it’s been a relatively smooth process. Two cast members were laid low with Covid for a while, poor things . (Weirdly in 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, no-one caught it, mind you we were rehearsing outside on the cricket pitch in all the wind and rain and baking heat of that summer – what is it with English Summers nowadays?)

We start out with a read-through and take it from there, first ‘ blocking’ the show – which means moving the cast around to create balanced stage pictures, then as the lines are learned and characters begin to evolve looking at the finer points and extracting a performance from all the individuals – who always bring so many ideas to the process themselves.

Meanwhile the children’s company does all the same thing in their own rehearsals with their company director Lizzie Lewis.  It’s quite an organic process really, it just happens, and as my dear old friend and fellow director Euan Smith was fond of saying ‘the director is a theatrical midwife really, he or she helps the birth of the play.’  I really like that idea, it suggests the whole play is there already, just waiting to emerge!

What nuggets of Boxford history can the audience look forward to (without giving too much away…)?

Well there’s that Wizard of course, who in reality was a quack doctor and local wheeler – dealer. There’s also a Witch, (and witches of course were often mid- wives – and this one, if not a mid-wife is certainly a kind of ‘mother’ – I’ll say no more about that…)

There’s a section about the old Lambourn Valley train line, in which its loss is lamented – I mean, just imagine if it was still there!  What a great way to get about the old local railway network was, compared to the bus service nowadays!   I’ve mentioned the mysterious collapse of the church tower, which is woven around a section of the play about local dissenters – very big in Boxford apparently, the village has always been a hot-bed of debate!  And then we’ve added a few tall-tales of our own amongst the ‘nuggets.’ See if you can spot which ones are true –  bit like a theatrical game of  ‘ Would I Lie To You’…

How much input do you have in the script-writing process?

Geraldine has been the writer of every Masque since 2000 and we’re so lucky to have such a tremendously imaginative, talented (and award-winning) author on the team.  As director my job is essentially  to make the scripts Geraldine creates work for the stage, so it’s all about problem-solving to some extent – like how to create an underground river on a cricket pitch this year!And remember these are brand new scripts, never before performed, so yes inevitably, I do have a bit of input as a kind of theatrical editor (and midwife to the script as above too I suppose!).

So it’s a process of evolution as the production gets under way and the story continues to evolve, in which I always respect Geraldine’s original intention but sometimes come up with ideas which appall her.  One thing that inevitably happens for instance is that the script arrives in an early draft before we know who, or how many, will be in the cast, and as all that emerges the script needs to accommodate any extra characters, or the size of the children’s cast, to mould itself to all who are available in other words.  It’s a lovely process, very creative – and long may it continue!  (A tenth Masque in a couple of years, anyone?)If  you do fancy getting involved just look us up online at or contact us to get on the mailing list  – and all are welcome to join in!

In the meantime, see you at the show from Wednesday 26 to Sun 30 July. I’ll  be there every night so seek me out if you’d like a chat.

It’s going to be great, with no worries about rain or tempest as we’re under cover,  and it’s a real shame to miss it. We have kept ticket prices at 2021 level – book online here.


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