Captain Blood's Singular Circus

Kevin Fegan
Coppice car park, Market Place, Belper

Joey Riley (centre) as Jolly Blood Credit: Jessica Fernie
The cast of Captain Blood's Singular Circus Credit: Jessica Fernie
Vicky Killeen (Padge Barber) and Catherine Omiela (Betty the barmaid) Credit: Jessica Fernie

Did you know that the Derbyshire town of Belper was where the world's first water-powered cotton yarn mill was built in 1776? That Belper has twice been crowned the best high street in England? That it was a centre for the nail-making industry? And that the fourth James Bond Timothy Dalton was brought up in Belper where he attended the town’s grammar school?

All these facts and more are revealed in Captain Blood’s Singular Circus, a community play written and executive produced by Belper playwright Kevin Fegan.

Fegan went through hoops to secure funding from Arts Council England for the project, so he was able to employ a professional team of theatre-makers to help the community participants deliver the show. And there’s no doubt that the cast and creative team of Captain Blood’s Singular Circus are totally committed to the play and the “liberal, progressive” town.

“Hundreds” of people from Belper and the surrounding area were involved in the development and production of the site-specific show staged in the Coppice car park where showmen used to rest in their winter quarters.

The show features Jolly Blood who wins a circus in a game of dominoes. He hits the road with his wife Melody and their two children, Click and Collect, as Captain Blood's Singular Circus.

Some of the ways the characters introduce stories about the town’s history are disjointed and somewhat contrived. But the show reveals the depth of community spirit which makes Belper such an attractive place to live and visit.

The cast is led by Joey Riley (Jolly) and Lesley Lowe (Melody) who throw themselves into their roles as the couple trying to make a success of their circus despite opposition from council jobsworth George Smith, stirringly played by Lucy Pedder. Eva Moss (Click) and Maddie O’Connell (Collect) are authentic as their troublesome children.

Others who catch the eye are Mik Horvath as Samuel Slater, the entrepreneur who steals Jedediah Strutt’s plans for his mill and builds a successful cotton business in America; Vicky Killeen as Padge Barber, the witch of a woman who tells wicked tales that have devastating consequences; and Andy Parry, a strong Oberon who also doubles as a sabre-toothed tiger in the circus.

There’s the odd bit of slapstick, a few laughs and also a few poignant moments, such as the revelation that 273 men from the town died in the Great War, in this “eclectic mix of stories singular to Belper”.

Captain Blood's Singular Circus is an ambitious project. It’s also brave to stage it at a time when the weather can’t be trusted. Despite that, the first night was well attended even though people had to sit outside in a car park in the rain.

One of Fegan’s more recent plays was The Palace of Varieties, a look at the life and career of former Derbyshire MP Dennis Skinner, which took to the Derby Theatre stage early in 2022. I remarked then that the play can be enjoyed by people living beyond the county’s boundaries. The same can be said for Captain Blood's Singular Circus: it’s a captivating tale although naturally the play will resonate more with people from Belper than those from outside the town.

Reviewer: Steve Orme

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