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Central Youth Theatre presents

'The Supreme Sunbeam' at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre
Friday 20 - Sunday 22 September 2007

The Supreme Sunbeam is both Wolverhampton's story - one for Wulfrunians to be immensely proud of - as well as that of the Modern Age's fascination with speed, technology and the freedom of personal travel. Sunbeam has left us a rich inheritance. It was great to see Wolverhampton's Central Youth Theatre keeping this story alive. It is said that heritage personalises history. It makes connections and adds emotion. Arguably, it is history at its oldest and most accessible - as story-telling and myth. Add to that an audience with a good smattering of proud parents and it was a real 'feel good' night. As the lights dimmed and curtain went up there was a palpable hush of anticipation from the audience in Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre as we looked forward to the unfolding of the story of the Supreme Sunbeam.

That story is well told tonight. It has been excellently scripted by Midlands' historian Peter Roberts, but it is to Jamie Smith as the narrator, Ernie, that the highest accolades must be given. He leads us seamlessly through a broad array of scenes from the 1880s to the 1920s, and through the very different social lives of the Marstons as civic leaders and those of the men and women on the factory floor. He really did bring the story alive in the story-telling tradition.

John Marston is played with deadpan humour by Dan Helsby. A starchy Victorian father eager for his family to enjoy the new, healthy fashion for bi-cycling and tri-cycling - his drawn-out pronunciation! He is portrayed as keen innovator, illustrated by comic references to investing in a snow-making machine. (Artistic licence I assume?!) Significantly, he decides his japanning company shall make the bicycles and tricycles he is fond of, finished in finest black lacquer. And, so the relationship between Marstons and high quality vehicle manufacture begins.

We see the family enjoying pre-war Wolverhampton social life at their fine home, The Oaks, on the town's Meridale Street. But, John Marston's wing collar and sombre suit are a visible contrast to the 'bohemian' Mander family in their 'Romantic' attire typified by colourful velvet jackets. His penchant for healthy, outdoor cycling holidays also contrasts with the Manders' talk of the arts - of pre-Raphaelite predilections and their founding of the very theatre we find ourselves in tonight. A place John Marston said he would not wish to set foot in!

This sombre side of John Marston is in evidence when the story addresses the opposite end of the social spectrum. We meet Jack Wilson and his wife Millie (Martin Thorpe and Jessica Collings / Holly Phillips) whose father was sacked from Sunbeam for sloppy work, and who dies a pauper. The grudge that Jack holds against the works eventually gives way to admiration after a chance encounter when Jack, a natural engineer, assists the Marston girls, Katy (Katie Griffiths) and her cousin Ettie (Katherine Lea) on their Sunbeam bicycles and comes to see the quality of their design. There is much talk of epicyclical gears - not a phrase much heard on the stage! Plus, a few Sunbeam bicycles as props, one of which descends wonderfully on wires, spot-lighted on to the stage. Jack is eventually encouraged into working at Sunbeamland and ends up in the Experimental Workshop, working on the land speed record breaking car.

However, before this story can unfold we experience the Great War through the eyes of those at Sunbeamland. There is hardship and loss for the women working long hours on the production line as they assist the war effort. We get a hint that wages are good - or at least fair -when one women worker confides to her workmates that she can now afford to take up cigarette smoking, something she has heard is highly beneficial for the lungs! Perhaps so, in the age of widespread TB. For light relief we are treated to the gravel-voiced, pint-drinking Enamel Shop Girls, whose entertainment is to paint  the 'private parts' of one of the less likeable factory supervisors in Sunbeam's finest black gloss - based on the marvellous, real-life tales of Sunbeam employee George Peck that can be found on the Wolverhampton History and Heritage Society's web site. Thanks are extended to George for his assistance in the programme.

Returning to the Marstons, we see that the war has had tragic effects on the family. Sheets cover the furniture at The Oaks, now an empty house devoid of its once large, happy family. John and his wife Ellen are gone, as is their son Roland (Jack McEntee), a casualty of war. It was Roland who we saw portrayed as the enthusiast for the business of engineering. His surviving brother, Charles (Joe Twilley), has interests elsewhere and Sunbeam is sold on.

This is where things become much more optimistic at post-war Sunbeamland, as the company decides to stake its place in the roll call of engineering excellence through development of race-bred machinery. All this stems from John Marston's earlier decision to take on the extraordinary - and expensive! - French engineer Louis Coatalen as he comes to realise it is important that his vehicles perform as well as they look. No easy decision for the dour 'Mr John' when faced with the philandering Mr Coatalen.

We catch up with Jack Wilson, now working alongside Louis Coatalen (Tom Slawinski) and the Major Henry Seagrave (Michael Wallbank) in the Experimental Workshop. We follow the Experimental Workshop team to Daytona Beach in Florida, USA for their attempt at the world land speed record in March 1927. With clever use of projections and voice-over radio broadcasts we are given a real feel for the excitement of the event ... successful of course after Jack saves the day with some typical Sunbeam intuitive, 'rule of thumb' tuning! The show ends on a 203 mph high as the cast reappear to take the enthusiastic applause that they, without doubt, have earned through their marvellous performances tonight. In turn, they pay tribute to the the real life men and women who made Sunbeam the internationally famous name in motoring history that it is. The Supreme Sunbeam.


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