We Will Be Free (4 stars)

This article is from 2013

We Will Be Free

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 hard to make this homespun play feel natural and immediate.

The imaginative historical two-hander begins with a familiar retelling of the legend of George and the dragon, but things quickly turn political with the unfolding narrative of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the birth of trade unionism in the south-west of England in 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, 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 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).