Ray Castleton does not portray the stereotypical image of an actor/playwright.
Nor has his career path been typical. Born and bred in Sheffield, he started his career as an apprentice carpet fitter at the age of fifteen and remembers “day one” when two of the shop stewards argued over which union he should join before he could enter the building.
He stayed in the industry and worked his way up to owning his own business, employing five staff and with numerous teams of fitters at any one moment, catering to all your flooring needs.
He’d done alright for himself.
But like a ripening vintage, when it’s had enough it’s had enough. Ray uncorked his own barrel at 60 when he came home to his wife and declared ‘Bugger this,’ deciding to sell up and follow his dreams in the world of drama.
“I’ve been wanting you to say that for ten years,” she replied lovingly, like a character Ray would write.
Because Ray likes to write about people, you see.
“There’s no such thing as ordinary … Everyone’s got a tale.”
Yes, Ray likes to write about people, and more specifically, their stories.
“History’s full of kings and queens, but the real story’s about that bloke who came home from war and went straight back down the coal mine. It’s his story I want to tell.”
Tasked by the National Coal Mining Museum of England (NCMME) with writing a play in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the nationalisation of the industry, ‘On Behalf of The People’ is a story, written by Ray, about people; a family coming to terms with the loss of one son, whilst embracing the return of another.
Based on collections of true stories and extensive research, ‘On Behalf of The People’ examines a period which re-shaped Britain and the lives of its inhabitants. The name of the play, taken from the iconic signage posted outside coal mines across the country after the commencement of nationalisation in 1947, reflects where its focus lies; the repercussions felt on the social level.
Like mole hills on a bowling green, two names never fail to pop up at the first mention of coal mining; Scargill and Thatcher. But there’s a great deal more to the story of this industry, which became the irrepressible lifeforce of a nation, than two polarised political figureheads.
The play’s post-war backdrop gives the audience the opportunity to appreciate the necessity for nationalisation in a time of economic instability, but also highlights an age of new hope. The foundation of the NHS ushered in a new era of healthcare, and the coronation of a young monarch brought about a real sense of possibility and optimism which settled alongside the dust of destruction.
“The play explores a lot of these ideas,” says Ray. “You can’t write a play about nationalisation alone – the audience’d fall asleep.”
‘On Behalf of The People’ is doused with Ray’s dry wit and down to earth realism, creating an accessible, entertaining yet poignant window into a formative and often under represented period of British social, economic and political history, refracted through the prism of some wonderfully three-dimensional characters whom you may, just momentarily, mistake for your own relatives.
Produced by The Melting Shop, a Yorkshire based theatre company, which Ray founded with actor David Chafer, it prides itself on delivering ‘real stories that matter’. ‘On Behalf of The People’ kicks off its tour with a matinee performance for the students at Chesterfield College, and follows this up with a performance for the public on Friday 25th May.
Throughout June and July, expect to see ‘On Behalf’ at a range of local venues great and small, from Bolsover and Buxton to Wirksworth and Matlock, plus further afield in Derby, Sheffield and Manchester.
The cast from left to right: Liz – Lizzie Frain, Tom – Danny Mellor, Connie – Kate Wood, with Ray Ashcroft as George (front image).
We had a sit down with Hannah Bowdler, Coordinator at West Studios, to talk about the significance of the collaboration between Ray and Chesterfield College.
The recital room where ‘On Behalf’ will be performed was once well known for concerts, folk and jazz performances, and even had its own comedy club, but has seen less use by outside groups in recent years.
It’s still a key location for student productions, “But it’s under-used,” says Ray. “I can see it as a potential venue for small scale touring theatre companies.”
“It is a perfect space for performing arts companies,” agrees Hannah. “What Ray is enabling us to do is create a new template for outside groups to come in, work with the college, and with the students.”
Ray can often be seen around West Studios carrying arms full of vintage clothing, muttering his plans to modify. Not to be mistakenly diagnosed as a hipster though; he’s simply taken a hands-on approach to sourcing the wardrobe for ‘On Behalf’.
Work experience and exposure to the real world of professional performance is what this opportunity represents. The end game is for the students themselves to run the performance space as a commercial enterprise, joining the ranks of current projects such as the PC Clinic and a graphic design company.
“Only so much can be taught from the classroom,” says Hannah.
“Opening up this space is not only a great way for the college to connect with the community” she continues, “It’s a chance for our students to interact with outside groups in an environment which is safe and welcoming.”
For full tour dates for ‘On Behalf of The People’ see The Melting Shop website.
From life drawing classes to help with stopping smoking, check out West Studios’ website here.
The cast of ‘On Behalf of The People’ are shown. From top, Connie – Kate Wood, Tom – Danny Mellor, George – Ray Ashcroft and Liz – Lizzie Frain.
Words: Jack Alexander
Images: Courtesy of TMS