The Crooked Spire, a murder mystery musical from a script by Mary Hennessy, was performed as a work-in-progress as part of the fringe programme in 2020 and 2021 but its creative team have now been able to fully realise their vision for a run of four shows at the Pomegranate Theatre in Chesterfield from May 19-21.
Holker Road resident Mary, a former teacher who won her first fringe award in 2000, said: “I’ve led a few lives and and lots of different things. I was happy just to enjoy writing but I always hoped to get an opportunity like this. It’s quite special.
“On opening night, I just want people to enjoy it, and to know we’ve done a good job entertaining and bringing Chesterfield into focus for its own community. I can’t wait to see it performed with all the costumes and music on the big stage. It will be an amazing thing for me.”
Based on the novel of the same name by Chris Nickson, the plot is set in the mid-14th century and follows John, a carpenter, who has travelled from York to find work on the new spire which is being constructed on top of St Mary and All Saints Church – which stands today as Chesterfield’s most famous landmark.
When the master carpenter on the project is murdered, John becomes the chief suspect and the only way he can clear his name is to find the real killer.
As he gets closer to the truth, the murder count rises and John’s own life is in great danger, but he also befriends a young boy, Walter, whose parents have died in the plague, and sets his heart on a local seamstress.
Author Nickson said: “I’m flattered that my story is being brought to life. There are a number of theories about how the spire became crooked and my story explores one of those theories. Above all, it’s a murder mystery, but the importance of friendship – and a little romance – underpins it all.”
It is the first time Mary has worked on a musical, and that has brought new challenges in terms of how to tell the story, build characters and knit the different components of the production together.
Mary said: “It’s been an exciting learning curve. It’s completely different from writing straight drama. It’s much more collaborative and I’ve had to express more with fewer words.
“In a musical you don’t get 90 minutes of dialogue. After the initial script was written, the musicians drop their songs in and then you have to go back and make sure the spoken parts lead into the lyrics and the songs lead smoothly back into the script. It’s a two-way process.”
She added: “We had to do most of it via Zoom during lockdown which presented other challenges. Now we’ve got a stage designer, two directors, a musical director and others working on it, the collaboration has gone to another level. It’s really eye-opening as to how much effort lies behind what you see on stage.
“I’ve learned a lot of history too, researching the conditions that people worked in and the incredibly skilled work involved in church-building. I spoke to two British volunteers from Carpenters Without Borders, which is working on the reconstruction of Notre Dame cathedral.”
The musical is being staged by Ashgate Heritage Arts, a not-for-profit theatre production company founded by Martin Coslett and Peter Gray, backed by funding from the Arts Council.
Martin, who is serving as producer and co-writer, said: “We’re thrilled to finally be able to bring our homegrown musical to the stage in Chesterfield – a captivating story which celebrates the town’s history and its most iconic landmark.
“It’s also about a community recovering from a pandemic, the importance of friendship and standing up for truth and justice, which everyone can relate to. And of course, there are lots of catchy songs along the way.”
Co-director Jake Smith added: “After reading the script, I jumped at the chance to be involved as I love staging amazing stories which have a strong sense of place and pride in local heritage. I’m also passionate about working with community theatre and creating excellent productions outside London.”
The cast includes Gerard Fletcher, whose TV credits include roles in Happy Valley and The Crown, alongside acclaimed theatre veterans John Conway, Stephanie Putson, Hayley Mitchell and Philip Meeks.
Up-and-coming talent includes Adam Stickler in the lead role, Clara Coslett – star of Sweeney Todd at Buxton Opera House this month – and 11-year-old Eddie Waller, who is fitting rehearsals around his year six SAT exams.
Eddie said: “I feel very lucky and excited to have got the part in the show. I can learn so much from all the professional actors and it’s going to be amazing performing on the stage at the Pomegranate Theatre.”
Given the finances involved and the specific local interest, it is possible that this will be the only chance to see the musical in all its glory, but Mary is already thinking a few steps ahead.
She said: “As well as the cast and crew, I owe a lot of thank-yous to my husband, daughters and friends who have put up with me doing this for two years. They all think I do too much.
“But I have started working on a new play. It tells a well known story from a new angle. I hope it will soon become a full-length production for the fringe.”
Tickets for the Crooked Spire are on sale at chesterfieldtheatres.co.uk. The performance on Thursday, May 19, will be accompanied by British Sign Language interpretation, and the matinee on Saturday, May 21, includes a Q&A with Mary, Martin and Chris Nickson.