Mrs Pack @ the Edinburgh Fringe
Three Chairs & a Hat are back
The Mumble caught up with Nia Williams
The lady behind the magic
Hello Nia… its been 3 years since Three Chairs & Hat, & many others, have performed at the Fringe – what have you been up to?
Hello! Well, we were all set up to take a new musical to Edinburgh in 2020 and then, as we know, Covid hit and everything changed. I count myself very lucky to have been able to get back to work fairly quickly during Lockdown, in the form of online music/theatre workshops, and to continue writing — and thanks to the support and creativity of companies like theSpaceUK, Three Chairs and a Hat were able to venture into digital theatre and take part in the online Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festivals. We produced several pieces, including short dramas and musical extracts, which involved a massive learning curve in video and editing, often remotely! Two other significant projects were also direct products of the pandemic — our animated musicals, which I’m proud to say have picked up some awards at international film festivals, and a major digital project called ’Shakespeare (She/Her)’, directed by Wayne T Brown, which presents Shakespeare’s women performing monologues, sonnets and songs in contemporary settings. So the last two years have taken us in unexpected directions and, I think, will have a lasting effect on our company.
Three years after we reviewed it’s visit to the Fringe, I saw recently that ‘Verity’ has won the 2022 Scenesaver Birthday Honours award for Best Musical – why did it take so long to be recognised, & how do you feel about the award?
This was such a lovely surprise, and a tribute to the skills of the whole ‘Verity’ team. During the past two years we’ve been supported and encouraged by Scenesaver, the international digital platform, including a major launch of ’Shakespeare (She/Her)’, and have become aware of the opportunities digital theatre presents to reach a wider audience. So, thanks to great feedback like yours at the 2019 Fringe, we eventually took the plunge and submitted a video of our original Oxford stage production to Scenesaver, and were really delighted to win the Best Musical award this year.
So what are you bringing to Edinburgh in 2022?
We’ve got a brand new musical called Mrs Pack. This is a bit different from our previous musicals, as it’s a period piece, set in the 1690s, and is based on a real person—a wet nurse who was brought in to feed the ailing heir to the throne, and given the run of the royal court, much to the resentment of the other staff.
How did you come across the story of Mrs Pack & what was the moment you felt it would make a good piece of musical theatre?
I came across Mrs Pack purely by chance, when I was researching a completely different piece of work. She was mentioned in passing as this interloper in the very hierarchical world of the royal court, who shook things up and was accused of carrying tales from Princess Anne’s court to the King and Queen. All this was set against a very tense political background, just after the Glorious Revolution had deposed James II, and this odd little story seemed to give a glimpse of a world where women were at the heart of power, but ultimately powerless.
The show focuses on the rivalry between Mrs Pack & the royal family’s chief nurse, Atty. Can you tell us more about that & how did you translate their conflict onto the stage?
Atty, or Mrs Atkinson, is described in the archives as popular and kind to the royal children, going against the harsh discipline and corporal punishment which was the standard practice of the day. Very little is known about Mrs Pack, and most of what we do know comes from the memoirs of a manservant, Jenkin Lewis, so who knows what his own prejudices were? But it’s clear that she ruffled a lot of feathers, and I tried to imagine how it would feel from both sides: Atty, a respected and professional figure, suddenly undermined and contradicted; and Mrs Pack, an outsider, resented and suspected by the court clique. Two women who could have been allies, instead turned against each other.
What are your motivations for choosing this particular subject?
Quite often, when I start writing something, it’s just an individual story or strange situation that captures my imagination, and I focus on that personal aspect of things. The great thing about then going into collaboration with others is that they really bring out the wider themes and dimensions, and this has been the case in working with our director, Katie Blackwell. Essentially this is a story of women — even women as ostensibly powerful as the future Queen Anne — who are being used and diminished in the service of a dynasty. Anne suffered horribly, enduring miscarriages, stillbirths, and losing all her children to fever and smallpox, but was under constant, unrelenting pressure to try and produce a male heir to the throne, at whatever cost to her physical and mental health.
Can tell us about your cast?
We’ve got a wonderful cast of four, who between them are portraying a whole range of characters, from high society to the streets. Rhiannon Llewellyn, who plays Mrs Pack, has extensive experience as an opera singer and has performed for ENO and Glyndebourne among many other companies. Olivia Baker, a theatre-maker, actor, singer and producer, plays Atty. Isabella Jeffrey, who graduated this year from Italia Conti, is Prince William, Atty’s ally Mrs Fortress, and an ambitious courtier, and Chris Johnstone, who recently played the lead in our show-in-progress ‘Dexter’, is Jenkin Lewis himself, as well as many others including a disaffected bugler!
Who is your director & where did you find her?
Katie Blackwell is a multitalented director, singer co-founder of interactive opera company All Aboard Opera and one of the singing trio Sorelle. I met Katie when we were both working for touring company Opera Anywhere, and we’ve worked together as singer/accompanist and director/MD on many productions. This is the first time Katie’s worked with me on a Three Chairs and a Hat production and it’s an absolute joy — she’s creative, enthusiastic, and calm in a crisis!
Which of your team have never been to the Fringe before & what advice would you give them to survive the Edinburgh August?
This is the first Fringe for all our actor/singers, and we’ve told them to expect anything and everything! I think they’ll find it exhausting, exhilarating, unique and completely addictive. For me, the key was to find a balance between wanting to see and experience it all, and needing some quiet time out to recharge the batteries — and to appreciate the eccentric beauty of this remarkable city.
You have 20 seconds to sell your show to a stranger on the streets of the Royal Mile, what would you say?
MRS PACK — she milked the monarchy, spied for a queen and turned the royal court upside down! All that plus song and dance — how can you resist?