Holding Fire!

Jack Shepherd
Shakespeare's Globe

Pproduction photo

"Class War, Civil War - The whole damn country blown to Kingdom Come". That was the threat feared by the British government as the second Chartist Movement sought universal (male) suffrage in 1837.

Jack Shepherd (who enjoyed his new play's first night from the pit) has chosen the latter part of this season's “Renaissance and Revolution” as the theme of a piece that explores the Chartist Movement with a keen eye on social and socialist history.

Holding Fire! is an unusual Globe play, being wordy and very political. It fits an awful lot into two and three quarter hours, probably far too much with a dozen or so different settings, loosely held together by the story of a young flower girl Lizzie Bains, enthusiastically played by Louise Callaghan.

Her journey from terrible penury in London is counterpointed by the development of a revolutionary political force, primarily represented by three brave orators, teetotal West countryman William Lovett (Peter Hamilton Dyer who intriguingly doubles as a castrato), the wild Irishman Feargus O'Connor (Jonathan Moore) and Henry Vincent (Philip Cumbus).

Other big names make guest appearances, including a voluble Friedrich Engels and even those museum pieces, Victoria and Albert, for a brief Christmas song and dance.

The action takes us through the lives of rich and poor as Lizzie is rescued from a cruel father (Moore again) by the Bradford nouveau riche nobility in the person of Kirsty Besterman's Mrs Harrington.

Once in service, the girl begins to enjoy an impoverished but respectable life, admittedly unfavourably compared to American negro slaves but probably without justification. She even finds love with Will, the comic boot boy played by this season's Globe clown, Craig Gazey.

Under historical drama specialist Mark Rosenblatt's direction, colour is added by scenes in a factory, at a bare-knuckle bout and a beautifully realised convention using the whole of the space. The plot is also advanced thanks to the efforts of balladeer Keith Kendrick singing songs specially written for the occasion by John Tams, an old Shepherd collaborator who made his name with Fairport Convention.

Latterly, after Will saves Lizzie from a fate worse than death, the drama moves into the Marshalsea debtors' prison not too far from the theatre, and finally into a terrifyingly realistic hanging scene that might give some visitors nightmares.

Jack Shepherd has created an entertaining historical drama that might have benefited from a little less ambition. It rarely stays in one place long enough to make its points but by the end, the playwright's good socialist credentials shine through in one of the better offerings thus far from the Globe in 2007.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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