I vaguely remember seeing Jack Shepherd’s play on TV a while ago but I can’t find any record of that broadcast. The piece has certainly been around a while before this latest revival – the programme/playtext (at £4 no dearer than the booklet of adverts on offer for West End productions) the premiere was in 1989.
The play is ostensibly a record of the meeting between the Blakes of Lambeth - poet William (Tom Mothersdale)*
and his wife Catherine (Melody Grove)
- and Thomas Paine (Christopher Hunter)
of Rights of Man
fame (or, as Catherine puts it ‘Oh, you’re that
Thomas Paine’). I don’t know if this is pure fiction or based on a meeting that actually happened but it hardly matters because the piece doesn’t really have much of a plot; being essentially a vehicle for exploring different models for social change. As you’ll know, Blake the visionary and Paine the agitator, while agreeing that the current situation was unbearable, would have had different opinions on how to change things. These differences are explored in a stimulating, unbroken 90 minutes in which perhaps the most interesting thing is the use of the character of Catherine as a sort of down-to-earth voice. Again, I don’t know how much this character is based on what little is known of the real Catherine (she didn’t get much of a mention in Eng Lit or History A-levels) but she is presented as illiterate (William is teaching her to read) but wise, loving and practical (a bit too bloody perfect if anything!). Her ‘Bill’ on the other hand is shown as a charming, deep thinking but often hopelessly impractical character (though he does seem to understand the importance of the engraving business to keep the money coming in). Tom Paine comes across as a bluff cove but (and this might be just my impression) somewhat patronising. If the play comes to any conclusion it’s probably that that two sides of the argument are interpenetrating and mutually important. Paine is the man of action but it’s clear to the audience that he has stumbled into the household of the Blakes for the very practical reason that a mob was on his heels. And Blake, for all their differences of opinion, clearly sees the need for people like Paine and is willing not only to offer hospitality and, if necessary, shelter but also advises him to flee the country: “They want to silence you….they’ll kill you if they have to. It’s important that you go on speaking out….Go to France. Speak out from there” Catherine seems to represent both a steadying influence and the need to keep things going from day to day (something both men seem unnervingly willing to ignore!) and there are appearances by a fourth, unspeaking character (not listed in the character list) who might or might not be William’s dead brother Robert.
The tendency for Blake in particular, but Paine too, to quote from their published works comes across as a bit artificial but is not nearly as cringeworthy as in Shakespeare in Love
. Otherwise the drama works very well - though I expect a basic knowledge of who Blake and Paine were is a big advantage. After all, man being chased by mob drops in on hippy-dippy couple and they talk a lot might not be very dramatic in its own right.
It’s worth catching this while it’s on as heaven knows when the next revival might be. In the unlikely event that R3OK readers might be offended by naked bodies I should warn that the play opens with William and Catherine up a tree in their garden without a stitch on. Again, I don’t know how true to life this might be (yet another thing we didn’t cover at A-level). You have another week to catch it at the Southwark Playhouse (a venue that seems to be putting on quite a bit of interesting stuff nowadays).http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/index.php/the-large/in-lambeth//* how rude of me to concentrate on the characters and forget to mention the players, all of whom gave almost flawless performances. I've now rectified this - except for the silent visitor who might be William's brother, Robert, but for whom no credit seems to be given in the programme