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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
There have been 11 performances to date, with another in summer
2007 and plans for touring.
"...virtuosic… vivid portrait of
a forgotten Bristolian who played an important part in the Brunel story..."
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
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: