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BWW Reviews: DICK TURPIN'S LAST RIDE, Greenwich Theatre, September 27

Up there with Jack the Ripper and the perpetrators of Great Train Robbery in the gallery of mythologisEd English criminals sits Dick Turpin, highwayman. How Turpin reached such an exalted position in English culture is explored in Dick Turpin's Last Ride (at Greenwich Theatre until 1 October and on tour).    

Three chroniclers of Turpin's life come together to debate how a life such as his should be interpreted:  Thomas Kyll insists, Gradgrindly, on facts and mighty unpleasant ones they are; William Ainsworth romanticises a life of freedom lived in the early Eighteenth century as Britain stood on the verge of being subjected to the iron fisted discipline of capitalism and the misery of the factories; and Richard Bayes, who purports to know the "truth" because he knew the man. As the three recount key incidents in Turpin's life, the scenes are enacted on a multi-level stage with the company of five actors taking on countless roles as the associates, enemies and victims of the highwayman. Ultimately, as was the fate of highwaymen, it all ends in biers, as first Turpin's gang and then, after a pursuit from London to York during which he shows more tenderness to his beloved mare, Black Bess, than ever he did to any human, Turpin swings for his crimes.

Daniel O'Brien's script and Pat Whymark's music place tremendous demands on the cast - switching from costume to costume and accent to accent as they flit from character to character, singing, playing an array of musical instruments, fighting, dancing, even becoming a dog and a horse - but they rise to the challenge and hold the kaleidoscope storyline together. Loren O'Dair is particularly impressive in the roles of the women Turpin used and abused unfeelingly and the horse he used and abused lovingly. Abigail Anderson's direction is less successful - with over two hours of dialogue, characters are too often static, announcing their thoughts and intentions, rather than revealing them through the drama.

Though it's probably 30 minutes too long, Dick Turpin's Last Ride is an extraordinary mix of song, storytelling, history, myth, literary interpretation, mime and acting that, like Turpin himself on his ride to York, just about reaches its destination in one piece, having cleared many obstacles along the way. For many, Dick Turpin is Sid James in "Carry on Dick" or Adam Ant in his "Stand and Deliver" video: this play with music rescues the man - and his victims - from caricature and sets them within a pre-industrial culture that, in the lanes of rural England and the riots of urban England, is not as far below the surface as we might imagine.  


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