Sometimes you have to struggle a bit to find the better things in life, so tonight I found myself tootling down to deepest Suffolk on my scooter to see a drama being staged in the pleasant surroundings of the John Peel Centre for Creative Arts, a nice little venue that is quite well hidden in the heart of old Stowmarket.  A former Corn Exchange that for a century or more saw the trade in local agricultural produce thrive within it is now a nicely proportioned performing space run by an enthusiastic team.

I was there to catch An Honest Gentleman, from the Stuff of Dreams.  Lest you doubt me that it is the name of a play and the company producing it.  This estimable company specialise in work that draws on the rich heritage of stories and tales that are particular to East Anglia and this play tells the story of highwayman Thomas Easter (Quinn Richards), who eschewed the career path of following his father into the Aylsham meat trade preferring the cut and thrust of the life of a highway robber.

Early in his life of misdemeanour he meets (while robbing her) Lady Temperance Elizabeth Fox (Hayley Evenett).  She is keen to avoid her rich father’s wedding plans for her, and so the intervention of a young and rather clueless Thomas gives her a fine opportunity to take control of her life, as she engineers her capture by him while also allowing their mutual capture of each other’s affections as they learn the business of larceny together.   Much more fun than Tinder.

They embark on a spree of robbery as they head south to the metropolis with ever more daring and profitable felony to fuel their dreams.  There they come across the notorious Dick Turpin (Geir Madland), a highwayman known  for his callous ruthlessness who is none too pleased by their intervention in his territory.

On stage this lively trio are joined by co-writer (with Cordelia Spence) Tim Lane who writes and leads the music in this show with a score strongly rooted in English folk traditions.  Tim will be known to many through his work with Crude Apache and the Stuff of Dreams theatre companies and his folk music ensemble The Punch House Band.  Cordelia also directs the play.

While based on some true history this play also conjectures the details of the relationship between the villainous Turpin and the young couple Temperance and Thomas.  The result is a most engaging tale and a fine piece of theatre.  The small cast bring us a plethora of characters along the dangerous highway with songs to mark the high points, and tragedies, of the roller coaster life of this pair of devoted lovers.  Their versatility gives us a wide range of characters in addition to their principal roles, with rapid on-set changes of costume and demeanour taking us quickly into the twists and turns of their story.

The young couple win our hearts from the very start of their adventure and show us just why these violent thieves of the Eighteenth Century became popular folk heroes as they picked off the rich and privileged as they travelled around the country.  Hayley Evenett and Quinn Richards are completely convincing as the odd couple brought together by unlikely circumstance as they develop the complementary but very different people they represent.

The romance between Temperance and Thomas is a big part of the success of this production as we see them weather disagreements and separation while remaining devoted to each other to the end.   Thomas has a gambling weakness and a bit of a soft head in negotiating sometimes, Temperance meanwhile keeps him directed on the correct path while adoring his bravery and decency.  Hayley creates a feisty and sassy character impossible to dislike, while Quinn is very convincing as the Aylsham lad who wants more thrills from life than the life of a butcher’s boy can give.  Geir meanwhile plays a number of key supporting roles but is most importantly the rakish villain Dick Turpin, a man whose moral code has long disappeared.  His gaunt and bearded appearance look just right for a man so notorious that he is always on the run, just one step ahead of the Thiefcatchers.

Stuff of Dreams Theatre Company have created a brand new piece of theatre that combines a swashbuckling adventure with an engaging romance, all presented with great pace and energy and a minimum of stage clutter and accessory.  The music from Tim Lane is charming and evokes the realities of life in the Eighteenth Century when the tale is set.  While it is full of high drama, some violence and some sexual tension it is a play that all ages will enjoy.  The company are touring small halls across in towns and villages across East Anglia, with shows booking in Diss and Ipswich amongst others. This Friday they are to be found in the City of Norwich at The Garage but you will need to be quick to get one of the few remaining seats.  I am glad I made the effort to get to Stowmarket though – this play is largely set on the old roads from Norfolk to London and it perfectly suits the ambience of the village halls along those roads.

This show is well timed, competently directed and brilliantly performed by the small cast.  It has moments that are very funny, and others that are deeply moving and may bring a tear or two to your eyes.  A cheerful show it was worth the chilly ride back home on the motorbike (keeping an eye out for blaggards and cut-purses) with the bonus of introducing me to the John Peel Centre, a lively little venue. A perfect Wednesday evening!

© Julian Swainson 2019


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