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The Long Life and Great Good Fortune of John Clare (Brightlingsea Community Centre)

Eastern Angles explores the life of one of England's most celebrated wordsmiths, the Cambridgeshire-born "Peasant Poet, John Clare

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

There's a healthy degree of irony wrapped up in the title of Tony Ramsay's latest play for Eastern Angles. The Long Life and Great Good Fortune of John Clare is, on one level, a biographical drama about the early 19th century Northamptonshire poet, a farm labourer with acute mental problems, whose verse was appreciated by leading figures of the late Georgian-early Victorian period, and whose malady received what was for the period sympathetic treatment.

That's just one part of the story we're given, however. Ramsay introduces us first to a psychiatric patient, a middle-aged man called John with a fixation on the music and lyrics of Neil Diamond as well as his namesake's poetry. John is visited by a doctor called Melody whose partner is trying to interest various television-programme commissioners of the viability of a drama-documentary about Clare – never mind the facts, just look at the possibility for showing lots of sex, social deprivation and greedy landlords!

Richard Sandells and Louise Mai Newberry in Eastern Angles' The Long Life and Great Good Fortune of John Clare
© Mike Kwasniak Photography 2013

Very subtly, the various layers and strands of the stories mesh together. Yes, we learn a lot about Clare and hear extracts from his poems but we are also drawn in to the human elements. John – this applies to both of them – is trapped by the fragility of his mind and by a desire for reciprocated love. Melody is torn between her responsibilities as a psychiatrist and her knowledge that her personal relationship is drifting onto the rocks. Rafe, her partner, won't let accuracy get in the way of a good story.

Director Ivan Cutting gives his three players space to flesh out their multiple roles. Richard Sandells as John is immensely moving as both his characters try to simultaneously break out of and seek security within their mental torment. Mental illness – just like the creative process itself – is not an easy thing to show onstage (or on film, for that matter) but Sandells makes it horrifyingly credible but at the same time immensely moving.

Louisa Mai Newberry plays Melody, Clare's child-carrying, poverty-bearing wife Patty, and one of the society women who invited Clare into their drawing-rooms. Henry Devas is success-fixated Rafe and Skrimshire, one of the enlightened doctors who treated Clare and ensured financial support for him. There's a simple platformed set that cleverly allows for rapid costume changes designed by James Turner.