The Game of High Toby. It sounds so romantic, doesn’t it? Conjuring visions of a velvet-masked and dashing highwayman, silken-clad and thoroughbred-mounted? Perhaps dancing in the moonlight with an attractive coach passenger and then gallantly forgoing his booty for this innocent pleasure? Wrong. Very wrong.
Daniel O’Brien, the nom-de-plume of the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds artistic director Colin Blumenau, has fashioned a ballad opera – with a clever score by Pat Whymark which combines folk pastiche with a very contemporary sound – from the story of Essex-born Dick Turpin. Turpin was made into something of a hero by the 19th century historical novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, who basically invented the central episode of the ride to York on Black Bess.
We meet Ainsworth (Julian Harries) defending his fiction against the criticism of a “all the facts and nothing but the facts” historian Thomas Kyll (Richard Pepper) and rough-and-ready pub landlord Richard Bayes (Morgan Philpott). Cynicism about all these masculine approaches to the subject comes from a barmaid (Loren O’Dair.; O’Dair also plays Black Bess in a marvellous performance which creates the illusion of a horse while never tipping over into anthropomorphism.
Then there’s the anti-hero himself. Turpin’s first trade was as a butcher and he cut his criminal teeth poaching deer before moving on to violent burglary. Jack Lord makes him dangerous and rough-edged, even when being Ainsworth’s character rather than that of Kyll and Bayes. You would have to go further than the distance between East Anglia and York to find a cast which can act, sing and play a variety of musical instruments as well as this one does.
Director Abigail Anderson has always had a sure touch with the Georgian period. She, with Whymark, movement director Kitty Winter and designer Dora Schweitzer, balances the dark of actuality with toe-tapping vigour. “I do not lie. I enrich. That’s the difference” maintains Ainsworth at one point. Turpin’s story has no heroism in fact and, truthfully, very little in fiction. Somehow it doesn’t really seem to matter.