Spirits in the sky

Cotton Grass Theatre presents Thin Air. Photo: Stephen Hepworth.
Cotton Grass Theatre presents Thin Air. Photo: Stephen Hepworth.

COTTON Grass Theatre are rounding off their tour of Thin Air, a new play by Berlie Doherty, at the Lantern Theatre this weekend.

The collaboration between the theatre company and the award-winning author, both based in the Peak District, uses theatre, projected imagery and live music to tell a haunting family saga.

Author Berlie Doherty

Author Berlie Doherty

Thin Air is a new piece commissioned by Cotton Grass, inspired by the haunting landscape and mythology of the Peak District and its associations with the history of aviation from the Rolls Royce base at Derby and the famous Dambuster practice missions over the Derwent reservoir, to the many wrecked aircraft lying on the moors.

Berlie Doherty, who lived in Sheffield for many years, is an established writer of children’s fiction, twice winning the Carnegie Medal for Literature with Granny was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, both of which have been adapted for stage, TV and radio.

The origins of Thin Air go back 18 months to when Cotton Grass’s Sue Daniel commissioned her to write a ghost play set in the Peak District.

“I decided I didn’t want to do a haunted house story and I began thinking about the crash site on Kinder and got interested in doing something around that,” she explains.

“I visited the site and was surprised that so much remains after 60 years that it has become a place of pilgrimage and reflection.

“Kinder is a place heavy in atmosphere. From where I live in Edale, planes fly along the valley and through a trick of light or mist seem to go right into the hillside . And that’s how I came up with a storyline about a plane crash and a ghost,” she continues.

“I am interested in early flight and saw the model of the AVRO Triplane (which made the first flight by a British aircraft with a British engine in 1910) at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. Its fragility and beauty struck me and you wonder how they could possibly take that up in the sky. And that’s my plane in the story.

“The story starts in the early 1900s and goes on through the First World War and finishes in 1936,” she explains.

“It’s about a man who comes back from the First World War with a secret. It’s a play about secrecy and guilt and all the characters have something they need to settle. It centres on the families of a brother and a sister and the secret is revealed as the play develops.”

Thin Air is directed by Joyce Branagh, writer-director living and working in the North West and younger sister of Kenneth Branagh. Among the cast of five is Sheffield actor David Westbrook, along with Laurence Aldridge, Helena Coates, Mark Roberts and Susan Daniel, founder and artistic director of Cotton Grass.

Doherty’s relationship with Cotton Grass began with a production of Street Child, a dramatisation of her novel about a homeless urchin who meets up with Doctor Barnardo, which they toured in 2011.

“I just sat back and watched what they did with it, whereas this is a totally different experience because I am so closely involved,” says the writer.

As well as the new play Doherty had a book called Wild Cat out earlier this year, an adventure story set in Wales aimed at ages nine and 10. It is about two children living in the Welsh mountains who investigate rumours of wild cat up in the hills and is adapted from the libretto she wrote for a children’s opera performed in Wales in 2007.

“Perhaps I should mention at this point that Thin Air is an adult play, although older children will enjoy it. We’re recommending it for ages 14+.”

Since February Thin Air has been touring theatres around the country plus performances at the RAF Museum, Cosford, and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. It is at Tideswell Theatre tonight and the Lantern Theatre on Friday and Saturday.