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Margaret Catchpole (Bentwater Park, the Hush House)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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True-life stories have an edge on their fictional counterparts; they are inhabited by real people in places which still exist at times that – even if now remote from us by decades, even centuries – have resonances for us today. Take Alistair Cording’s Margaret Catchpole which was premiered by Eastern Angles in 2000 and is now reproduced by the company’s artistic director Ivan Cutting as part of the celebration of its 30 years.

Catchpole entered Suffolk folklore, balladry, drama and novels through stealing a horse from her employers, the Ipswich Cobbold brewing family in 1797, riding it to London in ten hours, receiving the death sentence, escaping from prison and surviving transportation to the penal colonies of Australia. Somehow along the way, she gained support from the Cobbolds and became literate – her letters to Elizabeth Cobbold, her former employer, provide an unusual insight into the period.

It is likely, and this makes a heart for the drama as Cording presents it to us, that her passion for a local man who slipped too easily between service in the merchant and royal navies to a more profitable (if equally hazardous) career as a smuggler was her motivation for the theft and prison-break. Add in the third point of a love triangle in the shape of a second suitor who becomes a preventative man (revenue officer) and the story unfolds.

The trouble is that this unfolding happens in longhand; shorthand for some of the first half’s scene-setting might benefit the narrative flow. Jonathan Girling’s music is no mere decorative addition, and its blend of folk- and other contemporary ballads with something more descriptive works well. Rosie Alabaster’s multi-location set has the right sort of sprawl with crunchy shingle at its coastline and rough-hewn timbers for the farm and Ipswich scenes.

Performances are good, with several actors taking more than one part and a well-drilled community chorus providing the framework within which the principals play out the story. Rosalind Steele is very good indeed as Margaret Catchpole, both as the young girl who sees no further than love, marriage in church and children and as the woman with the hungers of emotional desperation who achieves so much that should have been impossible.

Of the men, Peter Sowerbutts as both her fathers – the real farm labourer Catchpole and Dr Stebbings who in many ways takes his place – gives the dominating characterisations. Will Laud – for whom she braves so much, so uselessly – is made likeable as well as weak-willed by Francis Woolf with Liam Bewley as the more stolid John Barry – a good man but not a heartthrob. Becky Pennick plays Mrs Cobbold as a woman with the gift of understanding as well as of compassion. But it’s Steele who dominates, and that’s as it should be.


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