IMPROMPTU JIG: Elysia Preston-Bell, second from the left and Charlotte Campbell, right, members of the cast of The Vanishing Elephant, the Camden Road musical, performed an impromptu Can Can outside Waterstones Bookshop on Saturday. Also pictured are Barbie Stevens, left, and Polly Taylor
WHEN Camden Road barber Sue Chilver auditioned for The Vanishing Elephant, the local community play due to open on Monday, she had no idea how personal the story would become.
She explained: "I am playing a Victorian woman called Susan Floyd.
"She ran bakery at 102 Camden Road in the 1880s, which is where I have lived and run my own business for the past 26 years.
"It's quite spooky – as I lock up at night and go upstairs, I think of her doing the same thing all those years ago."
Like many of the 300 local people caught up in the play, Sue has never done anything like it before.
She said: "It feels a bit like a fairground ride, exciting and frightening at the same time, but it's great because I've got to know people I've been waving to as they walked by for years."
With just three days to go, preparations for the biggest community event ever to hit Camden Road are in the final stages.
The billowing white marquee opposite St Barnabas' Church, where all the action takes place, is firmly tethered in place; rank upon rank of carefully labelled costumes are lined up and ready to go; carefully constructed stage sets and props are assembled, and hundreds of actors and musicians, designers and backstage helpers are waiting for the moment when months of work take shape as The Vanishing Elephant is performed in public for the very first time. For 19-year-old Michael Neve, from Vernon Road, who has lived in the area all his life, the musical has been "a wonderful opportunity to get involved in designing and making costumes."
The former St Barnabas' School pupil, who plays a murderer as well as a young soldier in the play, said: "It has also brought the whole community together and made me realise how much we have lost in the world today, where people don't know each other."
Writer Jon Oram, the man responsible for drawing out a coherent narrative from the huge mass of stories and pictures gathered together over many months, admitted: "I think we're all a little in love with Camden Road!"
The veteran writer of 30 community plays over the past three decades, who lives in Rusthall, said: "This is my home patch, so it is special, and it has been such a joy to discover the depth of feeling local people have for this area."
Material for the story has come from many sources, not least from the memories of men and women who have lived and worked there throughout long lives.
"A lot of people in our sheltered housing schemes at St Stephen's and St James' have been involved," said Jackie Sumner and Dawn Grant, of Town and Country Housing, who play militant Suffagettes in the play.
"It has been a really fabulous experience for us all."
Mother-of-two Bonnie Corbett, who lives in Rochdale Road, is one of the team who have created some 130 costumes. Admitting "my biggest fear is someone turning up and having no costume, that's what keeps me awake at night!" she said: "I trained in theatre and, after years working in advertising, it's just so great to get back to this, I love it."
Busy sewing gold braid onto a giant Kaiser Bill costume, Jess Hillier, from Tonbridge, who is going to theatre school in September, said: "We have all learned so much from the professional designers, none of us could have done it on our own. For me, it has been a perfect opportunity."
Chief set and costume designer Nina Ayres, more accustomed to the world of film and TV, said: "This is quite different. I'm used to odd venues, but producing abstract designs for performance in a marquee was something new! But this is about empowering the community and giving people belief that they can be creative, and seeing them getting involved and having fun is great – we have even drawn in local children to help us."
The musical, performed in a promenade style as the action moves from stage to stage, will play to a total of 3,000 people over 12 nights.
Frances Preece, who has run children's clothes shop Serendipity for 36 years, plays a murdered man's wife. She said: "It will be tiring to perform night after night, because we mingle with the audience between our scenes, but I think it's going to be wonderful."
The Vanishing Elephant runs from Monday to June 20 at The White Tent, Quarry Road, Tunbridge Wells. Tickets are available, price £8 - £12 , at the play office, 90 Camden Road (07941 718765) or the Assembly Hall box office (01892 530613).