Theatre-maker and performer Katie-anna Whiting is the granddaughter of the co-owner of Sprowston Boy, the Norwich-based racehorse which won against the odds at Ascot with a woman jockey on board. Here, Katie-anna explains why she has turned the story into a drama which is touring Norfolk and Suffolk in November.
I’m from Norfolk, born and bred. I grew up in a small village called Cawston, near Aylsham. I lived away from Norfolk for nearly 15 years, working as an actor and doing odd jobs here and there. I moved back home five years ago and have loved every minute of it. It’s nice to get back to your roots!
I would describe myself as a theatre maker, rather than a playwright. The last show we made was entirely verbatim, so the team and I gathered interviews with some of Norfolk’s rural over 70s, then we edited them together and performed them exactly as they were originally said…with some beautiful puppetry, sound design and a touch of theatrical magic!
This time I’ve pieced together interviews, newspaper articles and letters to make the play, so I consider my role as more of an organiser of things…I put the story together in an interesting way, but the material is already there.
I set up the The Whiting’s On The Wall company when I returned home to Norfolk in 2019/2020 with support from Arts Council England and The Garage, Norwich. The aim was to make work that celebrates the voices of our region and puts the stories of the ‘every person’ centre stage. When I grew up there were very few Norfolk voices on stage and screen, and although many regional accents are now celebrated, Norfolk remains something that is relatively unheard. And often ridiculed!
We have found our most interesting and fulfilling work to be fully collaborative. We work with fellow artists and our local communities to create a working model where all voices are heard and valued. The everyday experiences, dreams, loves and losses of real people inspire the stories we want to tell. And how we want to tell them.
We take our shows to theatres and community spaces throughout East Anglia, our ethos is that all audiences should have the same access to professional theatre, whether they’re in a village hall or a traditional theatre.
I first had the idea for turning the story of Sprowston Boy into a play back in 2019, at that point Gay Kelleway (the jockey who rode my Grandad’s horse to victory) remained the only woman to have done so, some 32 years later! At that point, I tried to fundraise to turn it into a documentary. We were going to go to Ascot and aim to film the next woman to win there. Sadly, I didn’t raise enough, BUT everyone was very excited by the story at the time, so I knew it was something that needed to be told.
Now I have my own company, I raised funds through the Arts Council and brought on partners, such as The National Horse Racing Museum and The Garage, to turn it into a play.
There will be two actors: myself, and Florence Wright (who can currently be seen on cinema screens in ‘The Flash’ movie). We will play several characters each. There will be projected images, puppetry, and beautiful original music provided by Skinny Boy Tunes (as featured on BBC Introducing and BBC Radio 6). It’s probably best summarised as ‘expect the unexpected…and some familiar soundin’ ole Norfolk folk’!
It’s a real underdog success story. And it’s true. For anyone who knows ‘Dream Alliance’, or ‘Seabiscuit’, this has the same feel-good factor.
My grandad was the owner, Geoff Whiting. He shared the horse with his childhood best mate. They grew up as next-door neighbours on Sprowston Road in Norwich. My grandad always dreamed of owning a horse, from working as a baker’s boy on the back of a horse cart, to his time fighting alongside mules in Rangoon during WWII, he never let go of his dream. Eventually, he and his childhood best friend (a fifth-generation coal salesman) clubbed together and bought a chestnut gelding. That gelding was called Sprowston Boy, and he went on to win Royal Ascot ’87 against the horses of Lords, Ladies and Royals. Not only that, but the horse was also jockeyed by the first, and only, woman to win a competition at Ascot for another 32 years. Even the horse took people by surprise. He was described as ‘not all that impressive on appearance’ and ‘he looked like more of a pit pony’. Together, they broke the glass ceiling, and won against all the odds. It made the front page of the Evening News the following day when you could buy a copy for 17p!
Having the family connection is what made it accessible. And personal. I had my grandad’s scrapbook; he kept a copy of every newspaper article mentioning Gay Kelleway and Sprowston Boy over the years, and there were a few! I had his photos and written memories from his time fighting in Rangoon, when he truly fell in love with horses. He was 18 years old. He wrote ‘the mules were the real heros’. It really was a lifelong dream for him, and Sprowston Boy made all his dreams come true. He worked hard for it too though. He’s a real inspiration, my Grandad. He was a lovely man.
You will laugh, you may cry, and you’ll come out feeling ready to take on the world! It’s got a real feel-good factor and there’s a bit of 80’s nostalgia for those (like me) who remember it – just! Our audiences said of our last show “it was extraordinary…like nothing I’ve seen before quite honestly.”
Horse Play tours the following locations in November 2023:
November 3 The Garage, Norwich
November 4 Wells Maltings
November 7 John Peel Centre for Creative Arts, Stowmarket
November 9 The Seagull Theatre, Pakefield
November 10 Lakes End Village Hall, Welney
November 11 Aylsham Town Hall
November 16 Westacre Theatre
November 17 Old Buckenham Village Hall
November 18 Sedgeford Village Hall
November 23 Diss Corn Hall
November 24 Sheringham Little Theatre
November 25 National Horse Racing Museum, Newmarket
Featured images supplied by The Whiting’s on the Wall