The inspired idea to mark the bi-centenary of the death of Keats in 1821 and of his visit to Burton in Kendal in 1818 led to the creation of a most individual piece of theatre, This Living Hand.

Marion Plowright’s scheme was originally conceived as ‘pop-up theatre’ to be performed in pubs from Lancaster to Keswick marking the bi-centenary of the poet’s walk from Lancaster to Dumfries with his friend Charles Brown. Covid delayed the intended bi-centenary performance at the Heron Theatre but when it came it was most warmly received.

It was clear from the start that the actors had developed a style entirely appropriate to the inter-active situation they would have experienced in the pubs and they were, it seemed, at first somewhat non-plussed by the failure of the well-behaved theatre audience to respond as volubly as those with well filled tankards probably did. However this resolved itself on both sides of the footlights and the performance rapidly gained pace and security.

The director’s huge experience in working in many different situations with very many talents and facilities, in schools and theatres and village halls, has enabled her to make maximum use of minimal resources in a hugely imaginative way. The audience was easily transported to the King’s Arms in Burton 200 years ago by the simplest of means and furnishings; the quintet of actors with equally simple vocal skills and physical gestures drew us into the milieu and the personal experiences of the characters they portrayed.

The theme of each of the three scenes, first in Burton in 1818, next in Winchester a year later and finally in Rome in 1820-21, of course focusses on John Keats himself, tenderly and feelingly portrayed by Duncan Lyndsey. The poet’s charm, his tender sensitivity, his passion for words along with his physical vulnerability were conveyed most effectively in this performance. His companion for his walking expedition and elsewhere, Charles Brown, was robustly delivered by Philip Chandler. Clearly more suited to the buffetings of life Charles Brown, although often seeming to be mere bluster, became, very clearly, even more sensitively aware of Keats’s poetic talents than Keats himself. Philip Chandler conveyed this support for his friend most movingly throughout the performance and particularly in the final scenes portraying Keats’s death.

Joanne Leeman and David Leeman created most effective and varying supporting roles, most particularly in the first scene when David presented the character of Wordsworth. In the first of several moments when poems were incorporated into the script in a kind of ‘voiceover’ fashion, either off-stage or with the actors stepping out of role, David’s words from Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’ were most movingly done. Indeed one of the delights of the play is the inclusion of numerous poems and extracts all spoken with the surest of touches.

Much was to be admired in this whole piece of theatre but the creation and presentation by Emma Nixon of several characters but mostly of Keats’s beloved Fanny Brawne was simply masterly. Emma is a highly skilled actress who, without any ostentation, can capture and sustain the audience’s attention and imagination with the smallest of gestures, glances, expressions and vocal delivery. She has all the necessary skills to vary her moods, accents and physicality but never with any danger of ‘stealing the show’. She is not, of course, the central character in this show and so, in consequence, she supports and enables her colleagues to play their parts secure in the knowledge of her response. Emma is the finest of team players and, in this production, this team wins completely!

Huge congratulations to all concerned ! A wonderful evening’s entertainment!