The Studio, York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal continues its fine run of varied, ambitious one-night Studio stands catering to a wide range of tastes with this one-man hip-hop storytelling performance of a true historical tale, organised by local spoken word gang Say Owt.
The piece uses loops, beats and some fine musicality to tell the story of a largely forgotten episode of would-be revolution inspired by the Luddite rebellion: the Pentrich Rising in Derbyshire in 1817 and the life and times of its leader, Jeremiah Brandreth.
Rapper-poet-storyteller Jack Dean is our host and embodies the key role of Brandreth, as well as countless other players in the story. These range from Brandreth’s father, a textile worker struggling to make ends meet as new technologies (and the greed of the bourgeoisie) skew the market, to his wife Ann, as well as numerous co-conspirators, informers, bystanders, and political heavy-hitters such as Lord Byron and Viscount Sidmouth.
The sheer number of characters, and the continual flow of the show across nearly two hours, make for impressive feats of storytelling and the piece is finely-tooled with very little room for improvisation or hesitation. Dean’s grip on the tale never flags, supported by an almost constant musical backing. This is provided by a fantastic three-strong band—Hanno Rigger on guitar and bass, Yoon-ji Kim on violin, and Beatrice Newman on cello—who use loop pedals and pre-mixed beats to generate a range of backing tracks and atmospheres for the show.
There are moments of great humour in the writing and some memorable verbal contortions: early on, we’re told about how Brandreth is sent to school in "Barnstaple / so that he can get some book-smarts in his arsenal". Yet the sheer volume of story Dean aims to cram in does mean that at times the rhymes are more banal and the constant couplets of the spoken interludes between songs can become more functional than fun.
The songs themselves though are built around loping hip-hop loops and washes of strings and guitars and keep the energy up throughout the piece. For the most part, Dean has done an excellent job of keeping the story moving through a variety of tunes, providing clear characters to follow and a strong narrative drive throughout; the linking of Jeremiah’s reservist arms training with the fatal final march through Derbyshire is particularly satisfying, as is a grimy rap battle between Byron, arguing in favour of a bill restricting owners’ rights to extort their workers and Sidmouth, the repressive face of the state and capital.
But the elephant in the room here, given the light-hearted lathering of hip-hop wordplay across a lesser-known historical figure, is that these things have been done similarly, and better, by Hamilton. This might seem like an unfair comparison given the scale and sheer unbeatable quality of that show, but it’s one invited by Dean’s writing, styling and the press surrounding Jeremiah. This is quirkier, dirtier, more on the side of the worker, sure, but it’s also less dramatically satisfying and suffers a little from the comparison.
The show is bookended by the deaths of two ‘princesses’, in an overt reference to the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley (whose figure Dean takes on as the narrator). The first of these is Princess Charlotte, an heir to the throne who died in childbirth in the same year as the Pentrich Uprising. The second was Liberty, who died with the enactment of the Six Acts—taxes and conditions on freedoms of speech, assembly, and the right to trial. It’s clear that the show wants us to reflect on similar restrictions today—and an overlong epilogue spells it out to us somewhat unnecessarily. But I’ve undeniably been educated, in the lightest of ways, and enjoyed some quality verbal wrangling in the process.
So there’s a great point, a timely rallying cry, and some fascinating history in here, conveyed through fine rhymes and clear-sighted storytelling. It’s just all a slightly strange mix between slickly polished and rough and ready; a nudge in either direction (and some judicious streamlining) would likely make this a killer show.
Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith