Andy Smith’s The Preston Bill is a one-man tour through a twentieth and twenty-first century history of events that are personal and epic: chronicle the imagined life of an ordinary, Preston-born, Northern, working-class man, Bill, and mark local, regional, national and international events that underpin and shape a shifting social-political landscape. As the chronicler of times past and present, Smith stands before us unaccompanied, but for a chair – an object that stands in for Bill, positioned and re-positioned in the space to punctuate a shift in focus, life-changing moment or direction.
This is history told with imaginative gaps left open for the audience to fill in: the invitation is, for instance, to think in-between the snippets of Bill’s uncertain childhood memories (he was born, we are told, in 1935) and the historical ending of the Second World War. Or, moving on through the 1980s, we register that Bill is made redundant just as Europe undergoes a seismic shift: ‘a wall is knocked down’. A repeated motif is the use of landmarks speeches made by political leaders such as Churchill, J.F. Kennedy, or Thatcher, each speaking to a future past; each distanced, or made strange to us so that we might hear them anew, by Smith’s announcement that each speech ‘goes something like this’.
A life span (from birth, through Bill’s marriage to his wife Edith, to death) spans the decades. Smith’s narration, proceeding through rhyme and association, gives us back the ordinary, everyday, tiny details – like a kind of contemporary Georges Perec. Unremarkable events that shape the far from charismatic city of Preston (one stop up by train from Wigan North Western), such as the building of the bus station in the 1960s, collide with or slide up against the Beatles topping the charts, Vietnam, and the Paris student protests. It’s a performance that constantly surprises and reminds us that, as the second-wave feminist mantra put it, ‘the personal is political’.
This may be Bill’s story, but as the title of the show encapsulates, it is also about the ‘bill’ of rights – rights fought for, rights gained, and rights lost. One of the most moving sequences is the story of Bill’s union activities in the 1980s (around the time of the miner’s strike), in which, to a strumming of the ukulele, Smith invites the audience join him in the chorus of the Preston Union Song, that chants the hope that something can be done.
If hoped for socially progressive futures have not come to pass, this beautifully composed and engagingly delivered chronicling of histories, personal and political, gives us pause for thought – opens up an affective and reflective space in which to look back, think, and, just possibly, imagine our way forward.