The Maddermarket Theatre is just three years away from celebrating its centenary – in 1921 Walter Nugent Monck converted a former Roman Catholic chapel into the Elizabethan style theatre we know now. His Guild of Norwich Players had already been entertaining the city for a decade in other venues including the Music House in King Street, now part of Wensum Lodge.
The Norwich Players continue as a thriving amateur company to produce work of the highest standard and their latest show, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, shows that they have ambition to match their skills. Jerusalem was first produced in 2009 with Mark Rylance in the central role and received rave reviews and a greatly extended run in the West End.
The play is hard to categorise but gives an unflinching insight into life in one small corner of England. It is the story of one man’s battle against the forces of normality and bureaucracy and takes place entirely on one day – rather fittingly St George’s Day. Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron has lived in an old caravan in the woods for 28 years. He tells improbable tales and has a reputation as a former daredevil who once jumped over rows of old buses on a motorbike. Now he trades drugs and alcohol, and these temptations bring a steady stream of young miscreants to his clearing in the woods.
However the town is expanding towards his rural hideaway, and the people of the town are losing patience with the wayward behaviour of this latter-day Pied Piper. The local council has served an eviction notice, and plan to enforce this the next day. Byron is also under threat from at least one parent of a teenage girl who like many has fallen under his spell.
The play starts with the detritus of what was clearly a lively party the night before. Characters emerge from various corners of a busy set and Byron’s old caravan. Two mirthless council officials have posted an eviction notice but Byron seems unconcerned and is confident in his ability to outfox them as he has for years. He is the king in his little world, and the court is composed of various rebellious teenagers, drug customers and local misfits. Nick Meir gives us a bravura performance as the wild man of the woods. On stage for almost the entire play he gives us a convincing and engaging character, as believable as he is extreme. We never know certainly whether he is from Romany stock, but he is clearly a man who cannot fit the constraints of normal domestic life in a small country town, yet his alternative lifestyle and natural eloquence draws a steady stream of youngsters and oddities to him.
His entourage includes Tanya and Pea (Molly Cutter and Katie Smith), a couple of schoolgirls who emerge from sleeping the night under his caravan; Lee (Sam Webber) a teenage lad who plans to travel to Australia the next day; an older lad Ginger (Harrison Cole), a misfit who has yet to grow out of the teenage lifestyle and a completely loopy Professor (David Newham) who seems to have drifted in by chance. Local pub landlord Wesley (John Dixon) turns up in Morris dancing gear for the St George’s Day festivities that are about to start in town, needing a little boost from Byron’s stash to help him through a hard day.
Nick Meir as Rooster Byron – photos by Sean Owen
Other characters drift in and out of the woods, including Byron’s former partner and six year old son. There is a common theme with all who visit the caravan, they all have unfulfilled needs and desires which Byron if nothing else allows them to forget for a while as they fall under his dangerous enchantment. The language of this play is as rough and ready as is the moral framework it portrays, but this is much closer to the real life of many people than some would like to admit.
This is a long play, but it is hugely entertaining and this capable and energetic fourteen-strong cast keep our attention focused throughout. Every character is convincingly played and we are drawn into Rooster Byron’s dystopian world. The play makes us look at the constraints we choose in our own lives, and many will leave feeling rather wistful for the wild freedom of the life in the woods that we have been watching.
This production welcomes a new General Manager to the Maddermarket, Alice Wright and she can reflect with pride that this enthusiastic company can produce such a fine show. Jerusalem, directed by Jez Pike, is a masterpiece of modern theatre. His cast is a mix of Norwich Players and UEA Drama students who together achieve a standard of performance that many professional companies would envy. If you possibly can, get yourself to the Maddermarket this week and enjoy this marvellous show.
© Julian Swainson 2018
Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth
Friday 16 – Saturday 24 March 2018
7.30pm Mon-Sat & 2.30pm Sat 17 & Sat 24 March
Tickets £12 (£10 concessions, £5 NUS students)
Maddermarket Theatre, St John’s Alley, Norwich, NR2 1DR
This is an amateur production by arrangement with Nick Hern Books.