CLF Art Café, The Bussey Building, London (***)
It’s a strange and perplexing fact that the number of plays about or engaging in some way with the Spanish Civil War could still be counted on the fingers of one hand.
The last one in my recall was Nicholas de Jongh’s The Unquiet Grave of Garcia Lorca (2014). Then a bit like buses, two have come along this year, perhaps because this year marks the war’s 80th anniversary.
Earlier this spring, Tricia Thorns and Two’s Company staged the London premiere of Ernest Hemingway’s first and only play, The Fifth Column.
As ever with Thorns, it was a spirited production, let down only by Hemingway’s insistence on writing himself dominatingly into the cast of characters. The Fifth Column hummed with life, love triangles and idealism corrupted against a background of opposing Republican and Falangist forces.
Idealism too is in strong evidence in Neil Gore’s honest, open-hearted Dare Devil Rides to Jarama, another largely untold or forgotten story by Townsend Productions whose previous shows have covered Chartism, the unfair imprisonment of Ricky Tomlinson as part of the Shrewsbury 24 (United We Stand) and the Tolpuddle Martyrs (We Will Be Free).
Louise Townsend’s productions in time honoured if rare fashion today, are unashamedly agit-prop/music hall. Her style tends to the rough and good humoured with plenty of musical accompaniment – courtesy of resident songmeister and folk veteran, John Kirkpatrick.
Nothing if not populist, last night at times became a deafening roar thanks to the red football rattles generously handed out with which to welcome David Heywood’s athletic, biking leathers-clad Clem Beckett, a 1930s Lancashire speedway racing hero who ended up as a Wall of Death biking legend (`Dare Devil Beckett’) and, as a fervent member of the Young Communist League, joining the International Brigade to fight Franco in Spain where he was killed at Jarama.
Gore gives us plenty of background leading up to Clem’s decision in a first half that throws up interesting questions about fascism, the politicisation of young working class lads then and their willingness to sacrifice their lives for a cause in a foreign country, and now.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t pursue the parallels – this is after all a commission from the International Brigade Memorial Trust and therefore an honourable and respectful account from that main point of view.
Clem’s story too is told alongside and contrasted with another forgotten International `brigader’, Chris Caudwell, writer and communist, who also died on the battlefield at Jarama and played sweetly by Gore himself as well as several other characters.
As an addition to the slim volume of theatre drama around the Spanish Civil War, and Britain’s part in it, Dare Devil Rides to Jarama is a timely reminder of our mixed heritage – the one individual selfless, idealistic, the other somewhat more inglorious.
Gore neatly, unobtrusively, underscores Britain’s non-intervention pact which allowed Hitler and Mussolini to supply arms to Franco whilst leaving the Spanish Republicans and International Brigade tragically short.
Heroic stuff – particularly from the two-man cast, Heywood and Gore, evoking a vast range of situations, events and atmospheres. Go, enjoy, learn.
Dare Devil Rides to Jarama is at the CLF Art Café, Bussey Building to Oct 29, then touring to Dec 3, 2016
See Townsend Productions for details
Review first published on this website, Oct 26, 2016