Ageless local dance piece heads to Edinburgh

A quirky dance piece based on Walter Mitty has been performed at Norwich Playhouse en route to the Edinburgh Festival next week. Norwich-based director Neil Paris tells RACHEL BULLER why his eclectic cast spans the ages.

It would be nerve-racking to make your professional stage debut at any age, but imagine if that show was about to hit the Edinburgh Festival, and you had waited until retirement age to do it.

The bittersweet dance show 'Agnes and Walter: A Little Love Story' is the first production from Norfolk-based SMITH Dance Theatre and features a fascinating cast aged from 26 to 78, all from East Anglia.

In preparation for its run at Edinburgh, it has been performed at the Norwich Playhouse as part of the Lord Mayor's Celebrations and for SMITH artistic director Neil Paris it marks the realisation of an ambition going back almost two decades.

The show is a mixture of comedy, dance and song and is inspired by James Thurber's 1939 short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

'The idea for the show probably first started 18 years ago so it has taken a long time for me to get it to this point.'

While working as Artist in Residence in the Arann Islands in Ireland he finally began working on transforming Agnes and Walter from an idea into a reality.

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'We finally presented a short performance of the show in Ipswich last year which was about 35 minutes long. From that we decided we could definitely extend it and make it into a longer, full show.'

The poignant and compelling show tells the story of a couple who help each other live out their daydreams and fantasies which helps them stay together.

After a long and involved application process, the show secured funding by Arts Council England, and with the support from Norfolk Dance, Norwich Playhouse and Dance East, Ipswich, Neil was able to fulfil his dream to create a production to take to Edinburgh.

'It was fantastic when we got funding. We only had it confirmed two weeks before we were due to start rehearsing.

'There are so many organisations that are having their funding cut so to be honest we really had no expectation that we would secure the money.'

A key part of the show is the relationship between the two older characters and casting this properly was crucial to the show's success.

'I wanted to involve an older couple in the show and someone recommended meeting a local performer called Ronnie Beecham. Then someone told me about a group run by Norfolk Dance for over 50s called Mosaic and we went along and Elizabeth was one of their dancers.

'It was terrific because we had lots of people coming along to audition and they were all great.'

Elizabeth Taylor, who is 78 and from Norwich, is a retired local teacher and mother of well known author D J Taylor. She started the contemporary and creative dance classes just three years ago and was chosen to play Agnes.

For Ronnie Beecham, who lives in Yarmouth, it was his love of a challenge and his energy for creative movement and music that got him on the stage despite no previous professional dance experience. The 68-year-old's motto is simple.

'Even if you think you can't do it, go for it, you've got nothing to lose and everything to gain.'

'It is their first professional performance and we are going to Edinburgh which is amazing,' said Neil. 'You would never know it is their debut.'

Neil, who grew up in Blofield Heath, trained as a cabinet maker before deciding to get involved in theatre.

'I didn't do any theatre training until I was in my mid 20s. I always used to be in to dance and loved going clubbing and people would ask whether I had considered doing it professionally.'

After completing training at Dartington College of Arts and Laban, in London, he joined the renowned Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, which has received several Olivier nominations and has toured all over the world.

He decided to begin developing artistic ideas himself and started SMITH Dance Theatre.

'I chose the name Smith because it is, I think, an everyman name, something unpretentious, and also Smith to me suggests forging something, creating something, like a Silversmith or Blacksmith. That's what we are about.'

After a handful of warm-up shows, Neil and his team will be heading to Edinburgh and can't wait to see his production take its place in the festival.

'The buzz around the place is amazing and everyone is really excited. There is already quite a lot of interest in our show which is great and hopefully it might lead to us taking it a bit further afield.'