BELLA – THE STORY OF MRS BEETON
Alison Neil’s first one-woman play BELLA - THE STORY OF MRS BEETON opened in 1988 and toured until 2002. The play had hundreds of performances in theatres, arts centres, festivals, castles and stately homes, and at small community venues such as libraries and village halls. The play was a favourite of Womens Institutes, and was also performed at Rotary, Inner Wheel and Soroptimist meetings. It played at the National Portrait Gallery, where the famous photograph of Mrs Beeton can be seen, and at the Queen’s Stand at the Epsom Racecourse, where Mrs Beeton spent her childhood.
Alison only stopped performing the show when she felt that she was too old to portray the 28-year-old Bella. She still receives requests for the play; hence the new re-telling of the story in “MRS BEETON, MY SISTER” her play for 2015 and beyond.
BELLA – THE STORY OF MRS BEETON was adapted as a BBC Radio 4 Saturday Afternoon play, first broadcast in 2001.
Alison provided the research, text and pictures for a permanent exhibition about Mrs Beeton at the Queen’s Stand at the Epsom Racecourse.
What the critics said
"An extraordinary one-woman show...such was the power of Alison Neil's performance that I am convinced I now know Mrs Beeton personally”
Paul Heiney - THE TIMES
“A totally riveting performance…which deserves to become a theatre classic. Comparable with the one-woman performances of the great Ruth Draper”
"Highly entertaining, from start to finish, and fascinating in its content. Forget the cookery, but don't miss the play."
"Superbly disciplined acting"
EASTERN DAILY PRESS
"Worthy of Joyce Grenfell.”
"This attractive and spontaneous show... keeps interest bubbling continually"
SPEECH AND DRAMA MAGAZINE
“A marvellously sustained piece of acting”
SOUTH WALES EVENING POST
"The linguistic power of Alison Neil's script and her mesmeric performance of it"
MRS BEETON... a fat, old Victorian cook? Far from it!
Isabella Beeton did exist - she was a journalist, wife and mother who had written her masterpiece, "BEETON'S BOOK OF HOUSEHOLD MANAGEMENT AND COOKERY" by the time she was twenty-four.
Alison Neil’s fast-moving and entertaining play brings this extraordinary, brilliant woman to life.
Her childhood was spent living in the Grand Stand building on the Epsom Race Course, where she was the eldest girl in a family of twenty-one children. A gifted pianist, and fluent in French and German, she married the publisher Sam Beeton before she was twenty. Their close working partnership involved Isabella in every aspect of publishing, and her unsurpassed book on "HOUSEHOLD MANAGEMENT", covering every aspect of running a home, has never been out of print. Her own busy life as a working mother in a publishing office was very different from the recipe for Victorian domestic bliss given in her best-selling book!
Her happy marriage and successful business life were blighted by personal tragedy, and she herself died following the birth of her fourth child, at the age of twenty-eight.
Amongst numerous other venues, it was performed at:
YVONNE ARNAUD THEATRE, Guildford, Surrey
PRINCESS THEATRE, Hunstanton, Suffolk
GEORGIAN THEATRE, Richmond, Yorkshire
PALACE THEATRE, Westcliff, Essex
THE QUEEN'S STAND, Epsom Race-Course
THEATRE MUSEUM, Covent Garden, London
NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, London
BODELWYDDAN CASTLE, North Wales
YORK ART GALLERY, Yorkshire
IRONBRIDGE GORGE MUSEUM, Shropshire
CHELTENHAM LITERARY FESTIVAL
LLANDRINDOD WELLS VICTORIAN FESTIVAL
DILLINGTON COLLEGE, Somerset
THEOBALDS COLLEGE, Herts
ST ANTHONY-LEWESTON SCHOOL, Dorset
STOKE PRIOR VILLAGE HALL, Herefordshire
MILTON ABBOT VILLAGE HALL, Devon
ALBURY VILLAGE HALL, Surrey
and many, many others across the UK
THE SIXTH WIFE
Alison Neil's second one-woman play "THE SIXTH WIFE" (the story of Katherine Parr) opened in 1992, and toured until 2016. The play had hundreds of performances in theatres, arts centres, festivals, stately homes, and at smaller community venues up and down the country. It was performed in Gloucester Cathedral and Berkeley Castle.
The scenery included a spectacular "stained glass window"; this was a scaled-down version of the window in Westminster Abbey depicting Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon. The window was originally part of an exhibition on Henry VIII at Greenwich Maritime Museum.
The paintings on the set were by Elizabeth Waghorn.
The story of Henry VIII and his wives goes in and out of fashion, and the play also proved to be particularly popular every few years. 2012 saw a large number of performances, as people asked for "anything royal", to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.
Alison finally stopped performing the show in 2016, as she felt that she was, sadly, too old to continue playing Katherine Parr, who died at the age of 36.
Alison portrayed Katherine Parr at a three-day event at Sudeley Castle, as part of the company Past Pleasures, recreating Tudor life. Katherine Parr spent some of her time at Sudeley Castle, and is buried there.
What the critics said
"A delightful evening which had the audience in raptures" BORDON HERALD
“The production was pure brilliance… an outstanding performance. It is a long, long time since I was so captivated.” TENBY ARTS FESTIVAL
"Alison Neil tells a riveting tale" OXFORD TIMES
"Great show…a delightful entertainment. A performance every bit as witty and assured as her own script" OXFORD MAIL
"Neil's play superbly delves into the history and politics of the time. She knows how to hold an audience, which she does with consummate skill.” BORDON HERALD
"Alison Neil created a myriad of players…An entertaining and at times funny commentary on the life of one of our most notorious monarchs" STROUD NEWS
"Henry VIII had six wives”… one of the few historical facts most of us remember from our schooldays. But why did he marry so many times? And who was that shadowy figure, Katherine Parr - the sixth wife who survived him?
"THE SIXTH WIFE" is set in the night, as Katherine Parr waits for her husband the King to die. She takes the opportunity to reflect on her extraordinary life, and the reign of the glorious, tyrannical - and tragic - Henry VIII.
Katherine Parr saw each of his wives as they came and went - in a variety of unpleasant ways.
Her own life was far from peaceful: four marriages, two indictments for treason, one love affair, power, wealth and death at the age of 36. She became Queen Regent when Henry went to fight the French; she helped to form the new religion of England; she also befriended a lonely and abandoned child - who later became Queen Elizabeth I.
In this fast-moving and entertaining play, Katherine casts her witty, observant eye over the turbulent Tudor age; and shows how a 'mere woman' could shape the mind of a King - and the future of a nation.
ACT ONE Running time: 50 minutes
ACT TWO Running time: 50 minutes
ONE HOUR VERSION
Edited play with NO interval. Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes
TRULY YOURS, C.B.
Alison's play about Charlotte Brontë opened in 2002, and ran until 2018. Unlike Alisons's previous plays, the idea was to bring a seriously famous person to life, about whom most people know at least the outline of their life and achievements. Charlotte Brontë was chosen because Alison had always adored her novels, and also because the story of the whole Bronte family could be told by Charlotte - the sister who outlived all of her talented but short-lived siblings. Alison was also almost exactly the same size and shape as the diminutive Charlotte!
Unlike her previous subjects, Alison found that researching the Brontës was an unending task - it would take years, if not a lifetime, just to read all the biographies and other worthy books that have been written about these remarkable people.
The most unexpected discovery was that the lives of the Brontës were not entirely miserable, dark and filled with disaster, as they are often portrayed. (This portrayal began very soon after Charlotte's death, when her father asked Elizabeth Gaskell to write her biography. Mrs Gaskell was a friend of Charlotte's, and it seems likely that Charlotte had woven a rather gothic and dark account of her family's life when talking to her - possibly to create a better story. Mrs Gaskell took this melodramatic account and ran with it in her biography - and the legend began.)
Like most people's lives, most of the Brontë sisters' time was spent on the trivial but absorbing minutiae of everyday life. Charlotte's own letters are largely filled with cheery comments and anecdotes about visits, trips and people she met, and the sisters had friends and pets that they loved, as well as each other, and occupations which absorbed and interested them greatly. Of course things turned dark when illness struck, and their home-life was also blighted by the final years of their brother Branwell. But on the whole, it was possible to write a play which had a lot of light, achievement, and even a few laughs to balance the dark moments.
Portraying a genius was a big task. Alison made the decision that the best way to do justice to Charlotte was to use as many of Charlotte's own words as possible, so the voice was hers, with as little imposition of outside views as possible. It was a pleasure to speak Charlotte's words, of course, because of the beauty of her prose, and clarity of her thoughts - even when she was dashing off a note to a friend.
Alison visited the Brontë Museum, of course, when preparing the play. She was very grateful for the help of the curators, and especially for being allowed to see Charlotte's 'going-away dress', and the bizarre gift from her Belgian teacher M. Heger - the piece of Napoleon Bonaparte's coffin.
The very last show was at Wellington Arts Festival. An appropriate place to end the show, since Charlotte's father was a curate in Wellington early in his life, and first published his books of poetry there.
Comments on the show
"a massive thank you for your recent performance at Odell village hall. Having greatly enjoyed your talk about Mary Anning when you came to Flitwick, I knew that we would be in for a treat. It was very hard to believe that the only person on stage was you. Once again, many thanks for a truly memorable evening."
"The full Brontë!" HERTS ADVERTISER
“A memorable event…the audience seemingly holding their breath at what was unfolding” HELMDON PRESENTS
"Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your Charlotte Bronte performance recently at Ffwrnes Llanelli. It was a beautiful, clever production and had the audience in thrall the whole time. It was both informative and entertaining in full measure - many of us remember little bits about the Bronte story, and the books read so long ago, so it was wonderful to have all of these memories brought to life, and perfectly staged. Many thanks for a lovely evening."
AUDIENCE EMAIL: THEATR FFWRNES, LLANELLI
"I forgot I was watching Alison Neil. This was surely Miss Brontë herself…”
“Movingly told by this consummate performer. The unique delight of the show was that you very quickly believed you were looking at the real thing.” NEWBURY WEEKLY NEWS
"Brontë and Neil - a spellbinding combination" BLACKMORE VALE MAGAZINE
"Her stunning costumes, attention to detail and wonderful ability to become the character…makes for a spellbinding and hugely enjoyable insight into one of our best-loved novelists." DETOUR
“This enthralling and moving play” HUNGERFORD & DISTRICT COMMUNITY ARTS
"Truly Yours took us to the heart of Charlotte Brontë… excellent entertainment" SURREY ADVERTISER
"Alison Neil wows the audience." ESSEX EVENING ECHO
“Another of Alison Neil’s brilliant series of one-woman shows” LETCHWORTH ARTS CENTRE
"One-woman show captures a tragic heroine. For two hours she played the role of Charlotte, as well as a host of ancillary characters, revealing love, joy and tragedy, duty and rebellion." BORDON POST
Determined, brilliant and romantic, Charlotte tells her story of passion and duty, triumph and tragedy, and above all - love.
Devoted to her strange and unworldly family, Charlotte Brontë was also wildly ambitious. Whilst remaining a self-effacing and dutiful daughter, abiding by all the restrictions of early Victorian life, she managed the incredible feat of becoming a hugely famous novelist. The instant success of Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette found her mixing with the literary giants of the age.
The joy of literary success was tempered by the scandalous fall of her brother Branwell, and a succession of family disasters. Charlotte's own life, however, had an extraordinary, happy twist at the end.
The Brontë family's story has captivated the imagination for a century and a half. Alison Neil's portrayal of the life of Charlotte Brontë - using many of Charlotte's own words - provides an exceptional theatrical treat.
ACT ONE Running time: 48 minutes
ACT TWO Running time: 58 minutes
ONE HOUR VERSION
Edited play with NO interval. Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes
THE JUST WILLIAM LADY