Writer: Neil Gore
Director: Louise Townsend
Musical Director: John Kirkpatrick
Lighting Designer: Daniella Beattie
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
With Townsend Productions you know what to expect: an important left-wing subject, an entertaining, involving and informative mix of song, comedy and serious agitprop, two men in their time playing many parts (and several instruments), an ingenious production by Louise Townsend that disguises its cleverness under a veneer of casual informality, and a well-researched and instantly accessible script by Neil Gore.
All these elements are there in the latest production, Dare Devil Rides to Jarama, but the balance is slightly different. Instead of banter with the audience or a rousing song to start, the play begins with Neil Gore reciting an anonymous poem in praise of the International Brigades to David Heywood’s soulful clarinet accompaniment – and, though there’s a fair bit of fun to come, the play is more solemn in tone than usual. Also different is the fact that Heywood plays the part of Clem Beckett virtually full-time rather than both actors switching roles.
2016 is the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and Townsend Productions are commemorating it in association with the International Brigade Memorial Trust. But how do you commemorate a war that lasted three years and caused half a million deaths with two people, a few musical instruments, and a simple set? The answer is to focus on an individual.
Clem Beckett was one of the first speedway stars in this country and also worked on the Wall of Death at fairs. Among other things he set up speedway in Sheffield at Owlerton, earned the nickname “Dare Devil” and toured Europe and the Soviet Union. He also became a Communist with a reputation as an agitator for improved pay and safety for riders. In 1936 he was settled in Manchester with his Danish wife, doing well out of his motorcycle businesswhen he decided to go to Spain to fight on the side of the Republic. He died heroically manning his machine gun post at the Battle of Jarama in February 1937.
After the sombre opening, the first half of Dare Devil Rides to Jarama is a lively affair. David Heywood is dashing as well as determined as Clem, narrating much of the action in loose rhyming couplets. Neil Gore plays everyone from a speedway promoter to Oswald Mosley, there are plenty of stirring or comical songs and even a burst of shadow puppetry. The audience shouts, cheers and rattles its rattles, given out before the start. Then all changes with Beckett’s decision to go to war and his meeting with Chris Caudwell, Communist poet, polemicist, and critic.
In the second half, Beckett and Caudwell go together to Spain and die together at Jarama. Odd bursts of caricature (Scots on Burns Night) enliven proceedings, but mostly it’s through this unlikely friendship – which is historically true – that Gore tells the story of the Brigade’s early experience of war.
Townsend Productions again succeed in projecting a strong political line without preaching, in proving that entertainment and moral conviction can co-exist. It’s much to the credit of Harrogate Theatre that it’s now committed to a regular association with this enterprising, and possibly unique, company.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed