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In Lambeth

Jack Shepherd
Spellbound Productions
Southwark Playhouse

Tom Mothersdale as William Blake and Melody Grove as Catherine Blake Credit: Kim Hardy
Tom Mothersdale as William Blake, Melody Grove as Catherine Blake and Christopher Hunter as Tom Paine Credit: Kim Hardy
Melody Grove as Catherine Blake and Christopher Hunter as Tom Paine Credit: Kim Hardy

Jack Shepherd’s fascinating play envisages an encounter between the artist and poet William Blake and Tom Paine, the revolutionary author of The Rights of Man.

First produced in 1989 at the Dulwich Tavern (from where it transferred to the Donmar Warehouse), it gets this engrossing revival not far from where it is set: the garden of Blake’s cottage in Hercules Road, Lambeth.

Designer Ruth Sutcliffe evokes this with a tangle of trees, beautifully lit by Neill Brinkworth, where Blake and his wife Catherine are discovered perched on the branches, quite naked. That’s not a production gimmick, Blake saw no shame in the body: you could call them eighteenth-century naturists.

This is how Paine, apparently in flight from rioters enraged by his republicanism, unexpectedly and disconcertingly finds them.

Blake has been playing on a penny whistle and talking to a blue-eyed, dark-haired, ringleted angel. Catherine wants to know what he looks like because she can’t see him. They are happy here out in the almost countryside, away now from the bustle of the city without neighbours prying upon them.

Bill’s been teaching his wife to read using Milton’s Paradise Lost. She tells him about a lynching in Catford, a republican. “We’re going to string ‘em all up,” she has heard a man saying, but thinks Bill's safe because he’s a poet and so doesn’t count: “They think you’re a crank.”

Melody Groves’s gentle Mrs Blake with her a matter-of-fact innocence and practicality becomes almost an umpire as the two republicans encounter each other. From talking with angels, this becomes a philosophical and political talk-fest as the idealistic and visionary Blake exchanges thoughts with Paine’s political pragmatist.

As the talk ranges through tyranny to marriage, the propaganda presentation of Jefferson and Washington to the possibility of regicide, of how to establish a more just society, a rift emerges between Blake’s imaginative view of the struggle and horror of bloodshed and Paine’s unequivocal realities. Paine wants to “turn the world upside down” but Blake wants to know if he can put it right side up again.

Shepherd’s writing is a masterly mix of character, situation and ideas that never gets bogged down in wordiness. Michael Kingsbury’s direction gives a sense of a cottage yard Eden outside which there is turmoil and allows Christopher Hunter (Paine), Tom Mothersdale (Blake) and Melody Grove to breathe life into totally real characters.

This is beautiful playing from all three of them that makes you feel you have shared real time with these amazing people.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton