Townsend Productions' brand of theatre is probably unique. For the present tour the company barnstorms its way round some 40 venues (the four performances at Harrogate its longest run) with a vigorous and engaging brand of left-wing agit-prop. There is nothing theoretical about Townsend's radicalism. It has nothing to do with international socialism, everything to do with the British labour movement.
We Will be Free! tells the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six men of Dorset transported in 1834 for swearing secret oaths in forming a union, a catch-all charge forced on the authorities by the then-recent legalisation of unions. The narrative is kept simple, concentrating on the relationship between the leader, George Loveless, and his wife Betsy, here presented as encouraging her initially moderate husband to stand up to authority.
The production, by Louise Townsend and Richard Stone, taps into English tradition to suggest a home-grown radicalism. Two actor-musicians, Neil Gore (also the writer) and Charlotte Powell, tell the story in song as well as the spoken word, accompanying themselves on mandolins, flute and concertina, singing folk songs in John Kirkpatrick's arrangements, even – splendidly – performing a couple of newly discovered Chartist hymns, set to existing hymn tunes.
Mummers Plays were alive and well in 19th century Dorset, as all readers of Thomas Hardy will know. Gore's script interprets the events partly through the characters of the Mummers Play. The humour of the opening scene of the Casterbridge troupe (homage to Hardy) rushing through the play with two actors is a bit forced – Gore and Powell occasionally try too hard to create a sense of amateurish improvisation – but the device works well in freeing the cast to caricature the Establishment as stock villains.
Gore and Powell give sincere unaffected performances as the Lovelesses (subtleties of characterisation are not required) and have fun in their various disguises. Powell's whip-cracking Squire Frampton sits entertainingly between cartoon-strip caricature and genuine menace. Gore plays straight with the earnest Union man from London, but goes nicely over the top with his pop-eyed constable.
Jo Barber's designs, with the symbolic sycamore tree the dominant feature, are much helped by some excellent projected cartoons and illustrations by Andy Vine. The overall effect is oddly satisfying, theatre as a community activity.