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'Reel' life during the war years

In theatre terms, the conversation between director and film programme manager was such a dramatic cliche - along the lines of 'let's do the show right here!' - that it would have been dismissed as improbable by any self-respecting writer.

When Dukes artistic director Ian Hastings casually asked film programme manager Lesley Anne Rose if she thought enough material could be amassed about cinema-going in Lancaster during the Second World War to make a play out of it, her response: ''Yes, I've been writing it for eight years,'' took him by surprise.

The end result of this fortuitous conversation is the Dukes' production - a world premiere - Home Fires, which will see the Lancaster theatre and cinema transformed into a 1940s Odeon, one of seven cinemas in the city at the time.

The story moves between 1943 and 2003 and explores the ties that link mothers and daughters through the passage of time.

Lesley has lived in Lancaster since studying at the city's university, and has been gathering material and writing the play for a number of those years. When she dropped her bombshell about the play, Ian told her off for hiding her light under a bushell - and took it home to read.

He said: "I was overjoyed. It had all the ingredients I wanted. I loved it."

Interspersed with archive film footage from the North West during the war years, courtesy of The North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University, this drama covers four generations of Lancaster women.

Against a backdrop of war, Lily, a young cinema usherette whose husband is away fighting, finds new possibilities in a pair of Gary Cooper eyes and dares to dream about what the future might hold.

Sixty years later, Lily's daughter and grand-daughter discover her wartime diary, wrapped lovingly in a red silk scarf, and discover that their ties with the past are knotted more firmly than they ever realised.

Lesley Anne said: "I wrote the first draft of Home Fires while in my final year at Lancaster University in 1998. I studied theatre and religion, and one of the modules I did was playwriting.

''A number of things came together at the time - a director from a theatre in Nova Scotia had been over to workshop his new play with us. His mum was from Lancaster and had married a Canadian serviceman and, like a lot of Lancaster women, she had emigrated to Canada with her new husband. He had come over to research a play he was writing about their sea journey to a new life.

"I got thinking about the women who did not go, whose lives had been touched by this great influx of guys from North America but who had stayed behind after they left, and the effect that must have had on their lives."

After graduation, life and paying the bills got in the way of any dreams Lesley Anne may have had about writing plays, but she came back to it when working on a script development project.

"I really got fired up about it again in September 2005, after the Dukes hosted a Moving Image Memory Club dedicated to researching the history of cinema and cinema-going in Lancaster during World War II.

''Then Ian asked me if I thought there was enough material to write a play about Lancaster during the war years. I could not believe my ears and I said 'I know there is because I've written one', and that was the start of the Dukes commissioning Home Fires."

Lesley Anne had done a lot of research in the oral history archive at the North West Regional Studies Department at Lancaster University, a project in which women who had lived through the war in Lancaster shared their memories. She listened to their interviews - and was deeply moved.

"The whole experience of listening to the women, most of whom have died now, talking about the past, really got to me. I think that's pretty evident in the play, as one of the characters hears the dead talking to her.

''I also visited the archives at Lancaster Museum and watched a lot of TV documentaries about the war. And I talked to people, and so many people have been so generous with their memories - all of which I hope I've done justice to."

The project is equally satisfying for Ian who has wanted to create stronger links between theatre and cinema at The Dukes since his arrival as artistic director. The film sequences of Home Fires will be back-projected on to an onstage screen in order to avoid the images being projected on to the cast and the actors creating shadows on the screen.

Images taken from public information films reflect what life was like for the women and children left behind when the men went to war.

"It's quite a weird thing for a man to direct,'' says Ian. ''Women will always be a mystery to men and I hope it remains that way.

"It is also a play about mothers and daughters and the fact that there is no future without the past. We are all carrying the past with us and you cannot divorce the two."

For Lesley Anne there is a family link. Her life-long interest in film began by spending a lot of time at the cinema as a child. She ended up studying film and worked as an usherette for many years. Her grandmother was also an usherette, during the war in Coventry.

"The war years are a fascinating time for cinema, not least because of the number of people who went to the cinema and how important it was for morale and propaganda, and just getting information via the newsreels," she says. "I love the way people's eyes light up when you ask them about cinema during the war, and you can see immediately how important it was.

"My main inspiration for the play was simply all the people that I talked to - when you're writing stories about people's lives you have to start by talking to people.

Whatever you write is not going to mean anything to anyone otherwise. And if theatre does not mean anything to anyone, there's no point doing it."

Home Fires runs from February 1-24. Box office: 01524 598500.

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