MARGARET CATCHPOLE: The Times
The sound of hoofs: an invisible pony gallops round the Cold War hangar on the old Bentwaters airbase and a small, dishevelled girl runs in to summon the doctor to her mistress. Half-admiring, half-scandalised, the doctor hears that the child rode bareback into Ipswich, right through the marketplace. "The boldness of the wild child must be tamed," he says, "for her sake and the sake of society." Above them stands the adult Margaret, condemned to death by an assizes judge, hearing her sentence commuted to transportation.
Margaret Catchpole, a legend in two hemispheres, never was tamed. Alistair Cording's play, based on fact, was first toured in smaller spaces by Ivan Cutting's regional group Eastern Angles and is revived in this grandly weird space to mark the group's 30th birthday.
She is a terrific subject: court reports, contemporary memoirs and her letters from Australia flesh out a life that is classic 18th-century picaresque: born to a dispossessed Suffolk farmer, she fell in love with a sailor and smuggler, worked for the affluent Cobbold brewing family, learnt to read, and one night rode her employer's horse to London to meet her lover - a feat that sparked both admiration and condemnation. She escaped from Ipswich gaol, was caught and transported. She became a free farmer and midwife and died in 1819, having been able to write of her Australian prosperity that "all my quantances [sic] are my betters". Great material, but it could have been just a sentimental romp: there is a lively community chorus supporting six professional actors and four folk musicians.
However, it rises beyond that: Jonathan Girling's score uses rough, contemporary songs blended with subtler, sadder atmospherics. A rough clever set evokes Suffolk sea and land and one final breathtaking moment. It does not underplay the darkness of the characters' lives, and lets them develop. Liam Bewley is John Barry, Margaret's failed lover who moves from awkward bumpkin to being a morally conflicted Revenue man; Peter Sowerbutts's doctor (doubled with old Catchpole) catches his reluctant admiration of the strong-minded girl; Gareth Hinsley is John Luff, Barry's accomplice; and Becky Pennick has several roles including Molly, a goodtime girl. Francis Wolff plays the handsome sailor, and again is given sufficient chance to grow up, hesitate, struggle and fall into laddish bad company at the expense of his lover. And, might I say, to do a really impressive step-dance and handstand at the riotous harvest-home scene.
Above all, Rosalind Steele as the heroine is a real find, delivering a performance of shining unaffected simplicity both in courtship and defiance. Her final faltering song of lonely grief snaps into "I must find myself another song" . And, as she turns, her shadow against the Antipodean sun grows taller.
MARGARET CATCHPOLE: The Stage
To mark Eastern Angles' 30th anniversary the company has revived Margaret Catchpole, a play about an 18th century Suffolk woman who stole a horse, was reprieved from the gallows, and eventually transported to Australia. The company first presented Alastair Cording's piece in 2000 to mark the millennium. On this occasion it's being presented in the atmospheric Hush House in Bentwaters Parks, formerly a US air force fighter jet hangar. Designer Rosie Alabaster fills the large space imaginatively with large white draped sails, a landing stage (that doubles as a boat, a farmhouse kitchen, an inn and a prison), a Suffolk sand dune, and a real crunchy stone beach.
In this space our story is told by a Community Chorus some 12 strong, a quartet of musicians and six actors. The first half takes some time to gather pace; 15 minutes clipped would have been to the drama's advantage but the second half, culminating in Margaret walking away from us down a long, long tunnel into the light of her new dawn provides some memorable moments.
Rosalind Steele is a feisty Margaret. From first to last she is a survivor but there is warmth and tenderness along the way. As the plodding simpleton John Barry, Liam Bewley catches the man's loyalty and honesty. Peter Sowerbutts' rich voice is used to good effect as Margaret's widower father and particularly as Doctor Stebbings, Margaret's sometime benefactor. Becky Pennick plays three different Suffolk countrywomen, all with gaiety and aplomb. Gareth Hinsley is a suitably imposing Judge and Francis Woolf brings some magical allure to Will, Margaret's true love. The moment of his death by shooting is very effectively played.
If Margaret Catchpole had never set eyes on smuggler Will Laud, she would have probably married a ploughman, conceived a brood of children and died in her bed on her beloved Suffolk soil. We would never have heard of her. Instead, this 18th-century wildchild refused to be tamed. She learned to read and write, became a famed horse thief and jailbreaker, was sentenced to be executed, then transported to Australia and became a legend on two continents.
Her story is told in Alistair Cording's lively theatrical romp, first produced by Eastern Angles in 2000, and now revived as part of the company's 30th anniversary celebrations. It's easy to see its appeal: it's a fast-moving story of love, intrigue and rough justice, steeped in the folk music and the smuggling connections of the local area and it boasts an intelligent, spirited heroine - played with real attack by Rosalind Steele. Even the theatre is intriguing, an old hangar buried deep on a disused cold-war airbase and the production includes a strong community cast who are there to do more than merely make up the numbers.
In theatrical terms there is nothing in Ivan Cutting's production to quite match the stunning final image as lonely and grief stricken Margaret walks determinedly towards her new life in Australia. But although the script sometimes creaks a little, like Margaret herself the whole show has an intelligence, openness and a big-hearted appeal.
At its best it points up the injustices of so-called justice, paints a vivid portrait of the relationship between Margaret and her well-meaning employer, Elizabeth Cobbold (Becky Pennick), and explores the misguided paternalism of the local doctor (Peter Sowerbutts) whose admiration for Margaret doesn't stop him meddling in her affairs of the heart. A pleasure.
MARGARET CATCHPOLE: Public Reviews
It sounds the stuff of some swashbuckling adventure novel. Tales of smugglers, horse theft, inter- gang rivalry, prison escape and a lucky escape from the hangman's noose. Like all the best stories though, this one is true but with a twist as the felon here is a young woman.
Margaret Catchpole has entered into Suffolk folklore, a young woman who falls in love with a smuggler and steals her employer's horse to ride an epic ten hour chase to London to find her man. What lifts this from many other tales of, what now seems petty crime, is the story behind Catchpole's exploits.
In a time where a woman isn't even supposed to ride a horse, Margaret strikes an independent furrow. Devoted to the man she loves, she sets about bettering herself in an effort to gain a more comfortable life, learning to read and write in the employ of local brewing family the Cobbolds. Will Laud, the subject of her affections, may initially be on a less honourable route but both Laud and Catchpole are somewhat dealt a hard card from the interference of Cobbold's employer and doctor.
First performed 12 years ago and revived for Eastern Angles 30th anniversary celebrations, Alastair Cording's script has an epic feel to match Catchpole's epic exploits. In Cording's telling, Margaret's misdemeanours and trails take up a surprisingly small section of the action; instead we learn more about her backdrop, her hopes and dreams and the circumstances that lead to her crime.
Such an epic tale is now given an epic staging, this revival playing in the Hush House at Bentwaters airfield, a former cold-war engine test hanger. Rosie Alabaster's set stretches from the shingle of the Suffolk coast, across fields to the wooden stables, a wide expanse for the company to play and roam over. The revised production also adds in new music from Jonathan Girling, an evocative mix of percussive themes and folk infused ballads. Continuing the epic, for this anniversary revival a community chorus have joined the professional actors, populating the Suffolk countryside.
As befits a piece about a remarkable woman, at the heart of the show is a remarkable performance from Rosalind Steele. Steele gives Catchpole a real depth, a woman on one hand consumed by love but also a woman frustrated by the social and class restrictions placed on her and desperate to prove herself. It's a performance that commands attention and elicits sympathy for Margaret without resorting to rose tinted glasses.
There's also fine support from Francis Woolf as Catchpole's love, Will Laud, and Liam Bewley as John Barry, a man conflicted by his duty to the law and his own, unrequited love, for Margaret. There's also some nice chemistry between Steele and Becky Pennick as Catchpole's employer Elizabeth Cobbold. There's a real sense that despite the difference in status, there's more similarities here than either would like to admit, both trapped in roles that perhaps never satisfy.
With such a formidable environment as the Hush House, the building itself almost becomes a character in its own right. The cavernous hanger causes some reverberation problems, with an echo causing some distraction, especially in early scenes but these can easily be overcome.
As Margaret is transported off to Australia we're reminded that her story didn't end here and in fact Eastern Angles produced a sequel ‘Margaret Down Under' - a revival for the 40th anniversary?