Review: Dick Turpin’s Last Ride – Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

There’s two sides to every story. Dick Turpin. Romantic hero or thief and murderer? As history passes and tales get embellished what’s real and what has been embellished to fit the agenda of the storytellers themselves?

Just a few days short of the 306th anniversary of his baptism we still owe much of what we think we know about this countries most infamous highwayman from countless romanticised films and novels.

Daniel O’Brien script instead takes a look at the real man and the contradictions in the more populist and rose tinted versions. In a tavern, years after Turpin’s execution, three authors are disputing the true version of events. William Harrison Ainsworth has published a glowing account of Turpin’s adventures that have outsold Dickens, Thomas Kyll has taken a more investigative approach while Richard Bayes claims to have the inside story but how he came across it is a mystery.

Through the eyes of these three writers we piece together the true facts of Turpin’s life, migrating from burglary to his more infamous highway robbery. It proves to be a much darker tale than we are used to with Turpin and his gang happy to turn to violence, extortion and even rape to get their means. By the time Turpin moves into more familiar ground of the highwayman all notion of some populist hero has gone out of the window.

Composer Pat Whymark weaves music throughout the piece with a series of songs and ballads that manage not only to combine an authentic feel of folk melody of the time but also provide a haunting timeless quality to the piece. The musical score transforms an already gripping story into a thrilling piece of theatrical narrative.

Director Abigail Anderson’s production delivers much from a simple setting and small cast making great use of Dora Schweitzer’s scaffold multi-level playground. As reflects the constant movement of Turpin’s flight, Anderson keeps the pace fast and fluid, building up tempo and claustrophobia as the net tightens on Turpin. Kitty Winter’s movement adds to the sense of equine flight while Mark Howland’s lighting provides beautiful vistas of shadow and texture.

The five strong ensemble work perfectly, creating over 55 characters between them. Jack Lord is suitably dark and brooding, though tempered with some surprisingly tender touches evident in his bonding with his trusty mare Black Bess, brought vividly to life with a sense of equine grace by Loren O’Dair. Julian Harries, Richard Pepper and Morgan Philpott as the three disputing authors (and a multitude of other townsfolk) also impress with their quick-fire characters.

Forget any preconceived notions you may have, Dick Turpin’s Last Ride proves to be a gallop through the life of one of Britain’s most notorious villains but a ride filled with vivid characters, a gripping script and a lush, evocative score that will leave audiences breathless. The Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds has shown that you can create theatrical magic with relatively limited resources, but as they prepare to send this highwayman back out onto the road it is on the back of a thoroughbred.

This is one ride you should definitely be in the saddle for.

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