Brunel 200 Legacy Show of Strength – An Audience with Sarah Guppy.
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An Audience with Sarah Guppy

Founded in 1986 in Bristol, Show of Strength Theatre Company (SOS) is Creative Producer led, focusing on developing and producing new writing. In 1998, SOS created the nationally acclaimed theatre at the Tobacco Factory and, in 2002, produced the hugely successful, The Will’s Girls, celebrating Bedminster Tobacco Factory workers.

As part of the Brunel celebrations, SOS chose to focus on the Bristol-based inventor, Sarah Guppy. An Audience with…, was a collaborative project working with students from City of Bristol College.

Born in Birmingham in 1770, Sarah Beach married Bristol merchant Samuel Guppy and lived in Queen Square. The family took out 10 patents in the early 19th century, including a method of keeping ships free of barnacles that led to a government contract for £40,000. In 1811 Sarah patented a suspension bridge, before Telford’s Menai and Brunel’s Clifton Bridge. Her tea or coffee urn also cooked eggs and kept toast warm and her final patent, at 74, was a method of making ships waterproof. Sarah's son Thomas Guppy was a skilled engineer who both funded Brunel and collaborated with him, and both families were also great friends.

Sarah’s private life was equally eventful and at 67 she married Richard Eyre Coote, who was 39. He drank and gambled away her fortune before dying of an apoplectic fit on Park Street. A hundred and fifty years after her death Sarah Guppy is finally being rediscovered. A blue plaque, erected by Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society, was unveiled at her former home at 7 Richmond Hill in March 2006.

Sarah was highly regarded, for both her brains and her beauty, and was played by Bristol actor, Kim Hicks. Kim has enjoyed a wide-ranging career, in TV, Radio, in Film and on Stage.

Today, Guppy would have designed using computers, therefore SOS chose to work with City of Bristol College computer students, who recreated her designs in 3D from original drawings. These then fed into the performance, which was illustrated with a 21st century power point presentation and sponsored by Hitachi.

Show of Strength – An Audience with Sarah Guppy.

SOS proposed that An Audience with Sarah Guppy would “…create a dramatic picture, and greatly enhance understanding of the world of the 19th century engineer and the huge developments taking place…..bringing history and Bristol’s industrial heritage alive”. They also felt it vital the contribution of such an important, and neglected, woman should be celebrated as part of Brunel 200, and that the performance could help promote engineering as career for women today.

SOS's creative team included writer/producer Sheila Hannon, producer Gill Loats, performer Kim Hicks, director Alan Dossor and designer James Helps. A wide range of partners, sponsors and advisors included Hitachi, Linda Copestake (City of Bristol College), Mike Pascoe (CHIS), Bristol Record Office, the ‘Bristol Collection’ at the University of Bristol, as well as later generations of the Guppy family.

There have been 11 performances to date, with another in summer 2007 and plans for touring.

Praise includes,

"...virtuosic… vivid portrait of a forgotten Bristolian who played an important part in the Brunel story..."
Helen Reid, Evening Post

"...beautifully constructed, an engaging balance of informative and entertaining… an enthralling entertainment with breathtaking skill."
Shirley Brown, former Theatre Editor, Venue Magazine

SOS themselves are proud to have realised the original aims of the project, and feel that audiences now have an increased awareness of Brunel’s little known contemporaries, as well as providing students with an increased knowledge of the role and value of heritage in learning, through linking 19th and 21st century design techniques.

They are also working with their sponsor, Hitachi, to take performances into schools and plan a Bristol showcase later in 2007.


Photography: Masthead: Marc Simmons. Content: Kevin Clifford.