ANCESTRAL VOICES, a one-man play about James Lees-Milne based on his diaries and memoirs, devised by the writer, genealogist and obituarist Hugh Massingberd and performed by the incomparable Moray Watson, delighted audiences all over the British Isles from 2002 to 2008, playing for six sold-out seasons at London's Jermyn Street Theatre as well as showing at dozens of country houses, provincial theatres and London clubs. (A full list of venues is given at the end of this page.) Many of the performances raised large sums for charity. Hugh, a great lover of the theatre and admirer of JLM (as described in his memoirs Daydream Believer: Confessions of a Hero-Worshipper), was not just the 'deviser' but also the producer and director, and for more than two years after his play had its première at the Savile Club on 2 October 2002 he prided himself on attending every rehearsal and performance, touring around the country with Moray and the production's devoted assistants, Christopher Winn and Mai Osawa. (Love blossomed over the props and lighting and Christopher and Mai were married in May 2004, the reception taking place at one of the country houses whose owners had hosted the production.) It was a great blow to the team when Hugh was diagnosed with cancer towards the end of 2004 and obliged to bow out of the production, though he faced his illness with fortitude and was in cheerful spirits at the play's hundredth performance at Fonthill, Wiltshire in May 2005 in aid of the Bulgarian Orphans Fund. Soon afterwards Christopher and Mai also retired from the production to write their 'I Never Knew That' series of illustrated books; but Moray continued to produce and perform the play for another two years, assisted by his son Robin and John Bratherton. The final complete performance was a gala at Barrington Court, Somerset on 23 June 2007 to celebrate one hundred years of ownership of that house by the National Trust.
Hugh Massingberd died on Christmas Day 2007 at the age of sixty. On 20 September 2008 an evening in his memory took place at the Kenton Theatre in Henley (where Ancestral Voices had been performed to a packed audience in June 2005), at which Moray Watson gave a final masterly rendering of scenes from a play which will long remain in the memories of all who saw it.
Moray Watson playing the youthful JLM in Act I, set in the library at Brooks's Club.
Moray Watson as the ageing JLM in Act 2, set in his Bath library. (Backdrops by Julian Barrow.)
Hugh Massingberd directing his play at the Jermyn Street Theatre in January 2003.
Hugh Massingberd arriving at the First Night Party.
Hugh with Penny Horner, manageress of the Jermyn Street Theatre.
Moray and Hugh at the Savile Club with Michael Bloch (right), associate producer, and Michael Strassen (second from left), audio consultant.
Petworth House, Sussex, one of the many country houses which hosted a production in aid of charity (July 2003). Part of the audience is visible refreshing itself before the performance.
Charlotte Mosley and A. N. Wilson at Petworth.
The team lunching at a pub (Christopher Winn on the right).
Hugh, Michael and Moray celebrating JLM’s ninety-fifth anniversary in August 2003.
At Madresfield Court, Worcestershire – Moray, Hugh, Mai, Christopher.
Moray at Wickhamford Manor, JLM’s childhood home.
Moray and Hugh at the wedding of Christopher and Mai in Sussex, May 2004.
The team on the road.
Moray rehearsing at Chatsworth.
Mai with the Act 2 backdrop.
Before the hundredth performance at Fonthill, May 2005.
Barrington Court, Somerset, scene of the final performance, June 2007.
Having covered himself with glory, Moray attends the post-performance dinner at Barrington with Charlotte Bingham and Terence Brady.
PRAISE FROM THE CRITICS
SHERIDAN MORLEY, International Herald Tribune
‘If ever a play was tailor-made for Spectator readers, this is it. Lees-Milne is, by turns, snobbish, nostalgic, rueful, splenetic, mischievous and stoical, each mood captured by Moray Watson.’
TOBY YOUNG, Spectator
‘Something rather special…. Lees-Milne's gargantuan collection of personal diaries has won much praise, even drawing comparisons with Pepys. By distilling the tomes' contents into 90 minutes of confession and anecdote, Massingberd provides an invaluable service while laying on an emotive, whistlestop tour of one man's richly fascinating life…. The fantastic salvage job of the diaries is to have caught the fleeting moment, and Watson's sprightly impersonations conjure before us the squirearchy of yesteryear as we zig-zag from the Great War to New Labour. Here be battleaxes, the plain batty and the downright sinister…. Lees-Milne was not above eccentricity himself, or indeed the snootiness that can come from moving in elevated circles - Gielgud, Betjeman, the Mitfords and Mick Jagger all get name-checked here along with aperçus about the Queen and the Queen Mother. But it's the way Lees-Milne directed his beautiful turn of phrase inward, registering the confusions of his bisexual heart and the wistfulness than comes with age, that Watson promotes best. His performances, endearing us both to actor and subject, deserve to find a wider audience.’
DOMINIC CAVENDISH, Daily Telegraph
‘The part of Lees-Milne was played, with a sympathy which got right into the character, by Moray Watson…. There is no doubt that the diaries have whatever ingredient it is that makes for addictive reading. They are gossipy, precise, candid, intimate, sometimes oddly touching, and they have a saving sense of the absurd. All these qualities are admirably preverved in Massingberd's well-shaped and dramatically pointed adaptation. This is a show that deserves a much wider airing.’
JOHN GROSS, Sunday Telegraph
‘Massingberd, inspired by Patrick Garland's production of John Aubrey's Brief Lives, has managed the same miracle for James Lees-Milne … a shrewd commentator on human behaviour, not least his own …. and found exactly the exact and right voice in the actor, Moray Watson…. Watson's performance has great authority…. The life of the man whose words we are hearing encapsulated a whole era and brought back a vanished world, one whose values no longer count.’
BERYL BAINBRIDGE The Oldie
‘Moray Watson, a great actor at the height of his powers, with humanity, heart, style, technique and trust at his command….’
LIST OF VENUES
Jermyn Street, London (six sold-out seasons); Kenneth Clark Theatre, Somerset House; Buscot Park, Oxon; Pavilion Opera, Thorpe Tilney, Lincs; Helmsley Arts Centre, Yorks; Archers Hall, Edinburgh; Ondaatje Theatre, Royal Geographical Society; Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford; Queen Mother Theatre, Hitchin; Ustinov Studio at Theatre Royal, Bath; OSO Arts Centre, Barnes; Blackledge Theatre, Salisbury; Malvern Theatres; Magdalen Auditorium, Oxford; Eastgate Theatre, Peebles; Island Arts Centre, Lisburn, Co.Down; Barn Theatre, Smallhythe, Kent; Rook Lane Chapel, Frome, Somerset; Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, Yorks; William Kent House, Picadilly, London; 3 Cavendish Square, London; St Peter's, Vere Street, London; Chipping Norton Theatre, Oxfordshire; Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh; Kenton Theatre, Henley-on-Thames; Christ Church Theatre, Royal Academical Institution, Belfast; Arts Centre, St Hellier, Jersey; Stoneyhurst College, Lancashire.
Brookss; Garrick; Cliveden,Bucks; Hurlingham; Travellers; Reform; Boodles.
COUNTRY HOUSE CHARITY GALAS:
Farleigh, Hants; Prideaux Place, Cornwall; Wiveton Hall, Norfolk; Petworth, Sussex; Chesworth, Sussex; Sledmere, Yorks; Doddington Place, Kent; Horham Hall, Essex; Ugbrooke, Devon; Brocket Hall, Herts; Firle Place, Sussex; Hinton St Mary, Dorset; Glamis Castle, Scotland; Castletown, Co. Kildare; Chatsworth, Derbyshire; Englefield House, Berks; Hotham Hall, Yorks, Bowood, Wiltshire; Burghley, Northamptonshire; Goodnestone Park, Kent; Houghton Hall, Norfolk; Attingham Park, Shropshire; Fonthill, Wilts.; Papplewick Hall, Notts.; Crundle House, Kent; Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh; Hatfield House, Hertfordshire; Barrington Court, Somerset.
Ripon, Yorks; Howden, Yorks; Windsor, Berks, Ludlow, Shropshire.