DramaReviewSouth East

An Honest Gentleman – John Peel Centre, Stowmarket

Writers: Cordelia Spence and Tim Lane

Director:  Cordelia Spence

Reviewer: Michael Gray

Stuff of Dreams’ latest touring production tells the story of local boy turned bad Thomas Easter, fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a legendary highwayman.

He was a real historical character, born in “Alsum” (Aylsham), though his short life is considerably fleshed out and embellished here. The Gentleman of the Road that everyone can name, one Richard Turpin, also features, this time as the villain of the piece, bringing about young Tom’s untimely downfall, before meeting his own end, as a quick coda tells us, just weeks later.

History also reminds us that there were opportunities for highwaywomen, too, and one such is Easter’s love interest, Lady Temperance Elizabeth Fox.

Very much a traditional tale, the stuff of broadsheet and ballad, and that is very much the approach taken in this musical play by Stuff of Dreams’ regular creative duo, Cordelia Spence and Tim Lane, who are also director and MD for the production.

Tim’s music, entirely unplugged, is a key feature in the show’s success. The catchy songs, folk-inspired, tell the story and present the characters. They’re toe-tapping, authentic, and sung with gusto and fine harmonies. The Deadly Nevergreen and Run Like The Fox are particularly memorable. Only once are we treated to a Lloyd Webber moment, for Temperance’s solo I Know About Love.

The staging is sparse and simple – blocks with playing card designs (Thomas is an inveterate gambler), and rails for the on-stage quick changes. It would have been wiser to avoid pastel plastic hangers, though. Stowmarket’s former Corn Hall does not lack history, but is short on atmosphere, which, with the flattening frontal lighting, makes the actors’ task harder as they seek to engage us in this ripping yarn.

But they do a great job, taking us to the foot of Tyburn Tree, where we join the crowds up for some grisly entertainment and in need of nuts and apples. With Brechtian titles – “Act II Scene 3, In Which Thomas Sees His Future” – and quick changes of scene and costume, we follow Thomas and Temperance from Norfolk through Essex to Epping and London Town itself, honing their skills, relieving the unwary of reticules and pocket watches, and then back to Tyburn where Temperance watches her highwayman meet his end with a smile on his lips and a final oration ballad.

The staging is sometimes too static for the storyline, but there is some splendid physical work – the hi-jacking of the coach, the pursuit, the dancing on the boxes.

Quinn Richards is a dashing Thomas, in his leather breeches and his forest-themed waistcoat; Hayley Evenett a feisty toff turned land pirate, with Geir Madland as the evil Turpin (“Hell is my manor”), as well as father to both Tom and Temperance, a dandy with a key role in the plot, and spoon-soloist for the happy-ever-after duet. Even Lane gets to play Jenkins the coachman, complete with coconut shells …

A great tale, rooted in the region, simply told; its natural home a barn, a pub or a folk club perhaps, where the audience might more easily share the humour, the power and the passion of this stirring story.

Touring until 24 May 2019 | Image: Contributed

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The South East team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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