We Will Be Free! The Tolpuddle Martyrs Story (4 stars)

This article is from 2013

We Will Be Free! The Tolpuddle Martyrs Story

credit: Kraig Winterbottom -Townsend

Charming resurrection of folk theatre tradition, with political insight to boot

Mummers plays – informal folk performances with hundreds of years of British history – are seeing something of a renaissance in smaller British theatres, with Townsend Productions leading the charge.

The chandeliers of the Assembly Rooms Ballroom jar with the format's traditional rough-and-ready spirit, but performers Neil Gore and Elizabeth Eves work so hard to make this homespun play feel natural and immediate, with the means of its telling woven out of Britain's most inclusive and welcoming theatrical traditions.

The imaginative historical two-hander begins with a familiar retelling of the legend of George and the dragon, the sort of thing more likely to be found in front of a tipsy audience in a village pub on May Day. Things quickly turn political with the unfolding narrative of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the birth of trade unionism (ever a topical issue) in the South-West of England of the 1830s. It's a difficult theme, not least because much of the corruption that led to the conviction of George Loveless and his collaborators was wreathed in incomprehensible 19th century legalese. But framing the story as a mummers play (with the addition of satirical cartoon projections) turns out to be rather inspired, bringing verse, music, humour and a sweeping sense of history to Loveless' story.

Gore and Eves' soaring voices work together beautifully in traditional tunes and original compositions (some songs contributed by folk musician John Kirkpatrick), either unaccompanied or with each picking up one of a range of on-stage instruments including fiddle and squeezebox.

Eves in particular is a revelation, gamely turning her hand to the resolute working class wife, traitorous local layabout, nasty thigh-slapping magistrate and mournful fiddler. Despite a slightly abrupt finale, this utterly charming play is a delight, and proves there's still plenty of magic in Britain's folk theatre heritage.

Assembly Rooms, 220 4348, until 25 Aug (not 12), 12.30pm, £15 (£5–£12).