Adaya  Henry as Raina and Janice Connolly as Deena

Not The Last

Midlands Arts Centre


Ask the average Brummie about Cannon Hill Park and the chances are the best response will be along the lines of “isn’t that the place by the cricket ground?”

As for its history . . . this year marks the 150th anniversary of its opening and two years ago the MAC approached Women & Theatre if they would like to create some theatre piece to mark the occasion and the gift of the park to the city by Louisa Ryland . . . who she, you might ask. Women & Theatre certainly did.

The result is Not The Last, a tale of two amateur historians thrown together by their local history society as a team in a sort of battle of the presentations on the life, and it turns out, loves of a major city benefactor.

The wonderful Janice Connolly is Deena, the old stager from the society, with an aversion to public speaking, some strange ideas, an allotment where she grows onions, just onions, and a primitive logic that sort of makes sense.

Partnered with her, by lots not choice, is Raina, played by Adaya Henry. You suspect neither would have been the other’s first choice, or indeed and choice of partner, and, it is what it is and as time goes on a bond grows.

There is a closer bond off stage with Connolly in her last year as Artistic Director of Women & Theatre, which is now in it’s own 40th year, and Henry is her successor.

We open with Deena and Raina lying next to Louisa’s grave, to sort of get to know her – Deena’s idea – and the pair then take us on a quirky voyage of discovery on a set that serves as cemetery, farm land, an allotment and, of course, Cannon Hill Park.

It is an ingenious set from Imogen Melhuish, a long raised oblong plinth that could be a grassy knoll anywhere, with an oval of bare earth with the uneven appearance of freshly dug soil. There are no props and whatever is needed, a bench, a garden chair and table, trowels, secateurs, even flowers, are buried and pulled from the earth when needed.

Deena collects soil to rescue it . . . part of her affinity with the life and the earth

Whether that is telling the earth can supply all our needs or we have turned our world into a giant landfill site depends on which way the wind is blowing I suppose. But it was certainly clever and got a round of applause on its first demonstration, a garden bench.

They talk of her one true love, Henry, a lamp manufacturer. He was older than her, 15 years but her parents would not allow it. She was to remain unmarried for the rest of her life.

We discover her nurse and then Governess, Charlotte Randell, which become a lifelong friendship. Louisa was buried next to Charlotte in matching graves. Was it more than friendship? Deena and Raina speculated, but then was a different time.

Along the way we learn about Deena and Raina, their own loves, fears and hopes. Deena fear of public speaking stemming back to school and breaking her precious possession as she told the class about it.

We touch on sexuality, on wealth, how could the soil we walk upon belong to anyone, it belonged to the earth and no one owned the earth, we lived on it. We touched on the environment and ecology but there was no preaching, no sermons, just mentions, questions, conversations. A message works better that way.

As the friendship grows so does our knowledge of the fabulously wealthy Louisa, weath coming from her family, her father, Samuel being the millionaire son of the millionaire industrialist John.

Louisa gave land and money to the then town of Birmingham worth around £180,000 in the 1870s, maybe more as it was given anonymously, as a friend of Birmingham. Purely in inflation figures that would be worth around close to £30 million today and looking at land and assets could stretch to £150 million or so.

Louisa, who never married and had no children, gave 57 acres for Cannon Hill Park as well as land for Small Heath Parl. She has made generous donations to the city’s hospitals, Birmingham School of Art and The Birmingham & Midland Institute.

By the end we knew more of Deena and Raina and much more about The Connon Hill Park lady. Directed by Jennifer Davis and written by Susie Sillett Not the Last closes at the MAC 0n 17-09-23.

Roger Clarke


Women & Theatre


Index page Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre