Jack Shepherd’s new play about the Chartist movement, Holding Fire!, received its world premiere on Friday night (3 August 2007, previews from 28 July) at Shakespeare’s Globe, one of two new plays in Dominic Dromgoole’s “Renaissance + Revolution” summer repertory season (See 1st Night Photos, 6 Aug 2007).

England 1837: a country on the cusp of revolution. Young Lizzie is propelled on a journey from a London slum to the servants’ quarters of a great house, and from first love to murder. In her flight from authority, she comes across the Chartist William Lovett, a man striving to steer a middle course between the brutal coalition of Parliament and Industry and the angry forces gathering against it.

Directed by the young director Mark Rosenblatt, a previous recipient of the James Menzies-Kitchin Young Director Award, the cast includes Louise Callaghan (as Lizzie), Peter Hamilton Dyer (Lovett), Craig Gazey (Will), Nicholas Shaw, Jim Bywater, Kirsty Besterman and Alice Haig, who recently graduated from the Central School of Speech and Drama. The production, designed by Janet Bird, runs in rep until 5 October 2007.

The involvement of the ‘Groundling’ audience in Holding Fire! thrilled first night critics into agreeing that this “wonderfully fluid” production of Shepherd’s imaginative new play brings the Globe to the forefront of theatre. While some weaknesses were recognised in Jack Shepherd’s “rambling” narrative, his “epic sweep” was appreciated, and there were more than enough compensations thanks to Mark Rosenblatt’s inspired use of the entirety of the Globe’s arena. Critics were also charmed by the performances of the romantic leads, Louise Callaghan and Craig Gazey, and impressed by Peter Hamilton Dyer’s “superbly noble” Lovett.

  • Carole Woddis on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “Shepherd weaves the story of Lizzie, rescued from poverty on the streets of London by philanthropic northern grandee, Mrs Harrington (Kirsty Besterman) as illustration of the reality of the working poor. It’s far too much to cover, but Rosenblatt’s wonderfully fluid production and able cast ensure that what emerges is a remarkable piece of social history – not least in the political debates, thrillingly staged throughout the whole of the Globe arena. The effect is electric - like watching 1789 and the ferment of the French Revolution – and a groundbreaking use of the theatre itself, which practically becomes a People’s Parliament in which vital political issues regarding equality and social justice are engaged with an urgency we seldom get to hear these days. Louise Callaghan as the unfortunate but determined Lizzie is outstanding as is Peter Hamilton Dyer as Lovett. But all deserve praise here in a production that shows the Globe once again as a perfect cockpit of the imagination.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Those of us who bang on about the need for big plays on public themes will welcome Jack Shepherd's epic … But, for all the play's ambition and energy, it offers more satisfaction as social panorama than political drama. Within the story lurks a vibrant dramatic issue: the conflict between peaceable reform and violent revolution … Shepherd, in fact, devotes much of his attention to the story of Lizzie, a London flower-seller, who becomes a servant in a mansion and finds herself on the run when her lover murders a lecherous Methodist preacher … But, though Lizzie and her lover are drawn into Chartist politics, the story goes up too many blind alleys: it may be fascinating to learn that country-house guests were entertained by imported castrati and skits on the young royals, but it has little to do with the Chartist movement … Mark Rosenblatt's production skilfully holds this diffuse saga together, and there is good work from Louise Callaghan and Craig Gazey as the fugitive lovers … But the result feels more like an exuberant narrative painting than a focused dialectical drama.”

  • Kieron Quirke in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “You want epic sweep, you got it. Jack Shepherd's rambling and rather wonderful history of the Victorian Chartist movement confirms, after the massive themes of Howard Brenton's In Extremis, that Dominic Dromgoole's Globe is a venue for new writing of special, grand-scale quality. Rarely has the Globe's space been such a feeder for the imagination as in Mark Rosenblatt's production … The story is anything but focused - major characters pop up and disappear, and the action veers around Britain. Yet as fights spill into the pit, and as the Galleries become pulpits for violent debate, you don't feel the lack of a well-made play. Rabble-rousing speeches (including those of Peter Hamilton Dyer's superbly noble William Lovett) and public hangings make the groundlings co-conspirators in the cause … Gloriously, we feel at the centre of a land seething with high idealism, on a brink between peaceful concession or violent revolution … It's a melodramatic sort of tale, and with all the righteous rhetoric and hissable villains, there are a few Hollywood moments that might irritate more sensitive palates. No matter. In this case, strong tastes make great theatre.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (three stars) – “In this expertly orchestrated premiere production by Mark Rosenblatt, it is a piece that demonstrates how well Shakespeare's Globe lends itself to drama involving passionate public debate … With delegates positioned in every part of the auditorium, the theatre is thrillingly transformed into a ‘People's Parliament’ in the scene where Shepherd dramatises the acrimonious convention in Birmingham. The play counterpoints the build-up of revolutionary ferment with the story of London flower-girl Lizzie Bains (a winningly whole-hearted Louise Callaghan) … Lizzie's political development from a girl who more than half believes the myth that working-class suffering is natural echoes the shift of consciousness in the drama as a whole. Her tale, though, is not a strong enough thread to pull this play into taut, imaginative unity. Feargus O'Connor (Jonathan Moore) has the makings of a fascinating character but there's no time to explore … And yet I was left with a positive impression … the piece may sometimes lack focus but is always vibrantly alive.”

  • Emma John in Time Out London (three stars) - “Within the history lesson, playwright Jack Shepherd interweaves the ballad-style narrative of a young London girl, Lizzie Bains, and a serving boy, Will. A large cast bombards us with characters, both historical and fictional. It is hard to keep track of them, and many remain at the level of Dickensian caricature: the female philanthropist, the uncaring factory owner. Craig Gazey gives a heart-winning performance as cheeky, romantic Will, and Louise Callaghan braves through some clichéd dialogue as Lizzie, but even their subplot, which sees them caught up in the Chartists’ protests, hops along in a disjointed manner. Throughout the play, director Mark Rosenblatt uses the pit audience as part of the action. At its most successful, Holding Fire! manages evocatively to create the febrile atmosphere of a simmering nation: at one point the audience becomes the crowd at a rally threatening to get out of hand and soldiers turn their cannon upon us. But Shepherd fails to manage the individual stories, meaning he never does justice to the central, heroic figure of Lovett.”

    - by Tom Atkins

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