The Gold Rush

A Summer touring production by the Rude Mechanical Theatre Company
Written and directed by Pete Talbot
(2006)

Production photo
Production photo

The Rude Mechanicals draw their acting style from the centuries-old disciplines of commedia dell’arte, but they wear their learning lightly.

Using dozens of colourful costumes and Pierrot white faces instead of masks, Pete Talbot’s summer touring production, with its vaudeville gags and inventive script, busts our usual low expectations of summer stock on the road to create a cheeky, stylish performance that will surprise and delight both young and old.

This year’s open-air show is set against the Klondike gold rush of 1898, when penniless Americans sold up their meagre possessions to buy worthless share claims and join in the crazy hunt for gold among the frozen wastes of the Yukon.

Seventy thousand ill-equipped prospectors died while struggling to climb the impossibly steep mountain pass, better known as the Golden Staircase. And the handful who made it to Dawson City where it was all happening came away empty-handed after finding that the genuine claims had already been staked.

Charlie Chaplin turned it into sentimental comedy with his ‘little man’ in a blizzard landscape, enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner of boiled boots and shoelaces. Chaplin’s movie may have been Talbot’s first inspiration, but his play reveals a more mature Brechtian ability to invent powerful situations and conversational ploys, blended with touching moments of genuine pathos, while wickedly reminding us that this is a play within a play - theatre and not real life.

A versatile cast of six is led by veteran actor Grant Stimpson as a larger than life Italian vaudeville artiste, eking out an existence with a travelling troupe he runs with his Irish lover and business partner Bella, played with feminine insouciance by Rosie Armstrong, given to sweetly pursing her Cupid’s bow lips over a flute or a tin whistle, and wistfully singing of love and loss.

But slap-bang in the middle of their music hall performance, mid-song in fact, the scene is suddenly invaded by a noisy trio of gold prospectors, pockets crammed with nuggets, bearing tales of untold riches to be found in muddy Yukon streams, stakes to be bought and a fairytale ending to lives of poverty and privation.

Soon troupers and townsfolk have gone gold mad, selling wives, babies, pearl rings and even the vaudevillian trunkful of costumes and properties in a desperate bid to climb the Golden Staircase to a new world of dreams.

Stimpson also doubles as the unscrupulous local mayor, with a rude turn of phrase and a talent for sly double-takes; plus Rowan Talbot (elsewhere lead singer and bassist) as his trigger-happy sidekick, always ready on the draw to shoot awkward customers in the back for business advantage.

Liz Eves as the romantic Pearl provides the love interest between lively bourrées on her fiddle and piano-accordion, while the darker characters are powerfully played by Pete McCamley as a corrupt Hellfire preacher with his sermon on the stump: “Blessed are the poor, for they shall see Gold!”; and the grim Fosca, death with a snarling French accent, in search of his victims.

The production also gives aficionados of physical theatre another chance to see the diminutive but hugely talented Irish clown and actor Tom Power, whose deft performance bears comparison with such greats as Chaplin, Fo and Marceau.

Two and half hours flash by, and as a sort of happy ending I predict you will make your way home still singing and dancing to the show’s catchy ‘Walking in the Moonlight’ theme song.

"The Gold Rush" tour continues until 28th August, 2006, at open-air venues in East and West Sussex, Kent and Hampshire. For details and dates visit their website.

Reviewer: John Thaxter