The Sutton Hoo Mob
Eastern Angles Theatre Company
William Loveless Hall, Wivenhoe, and touring till end of May
In reviving Peppy Barlow's Sutton Hoo Mob after twelve years, Eastern Angles are doing their own little bit of archaeology with this production, which they'll bring to the forthcoming Pride of Place festival in Woodbridge at the end of March. Like its Ealing comedy near-namesake The Lavender Hill Mob, it tells of a quiet man's special relationship with gold, but where Alec Guinness' bank underling pulls off a near-perfect bullion robbery, Barlow's archaeologist Basil Brown initiates the 20th century's most extraordinary discovery of buried treasure.
Despite director Ivan Cutting's claim to have shifted the focus this time from Brown's 'fight for glory' onto the preoccupations of the Sutton Hoo landowner Edith Pretty, the evening still belongs to the watchful, unassuming Basil Brown, in a gentle, idiosyncratic performance from Patrick Knox.
Brown, who unearthed the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Snape, is called in by Mrs Pretty (Lisa Armytage) to excavate the largest mound on her estate, after a dream suggests to her that it might contain something unusual, and between them these two characters articulate the play's underlying themes. Due to his patience and watchfulness, Brown is able to discern and slowly reveal the invisible past, and to approach it in a way that allows what is hidden to come to light undamaged. People are treading on history every day, he says, but they don't know it.
Mrs Pretty also sees what is invisible to others - her husband, Frank, dead some three years, but still the person with whom she shares the many difficulties surrounding the dig: the dispute between the Ipswich Museum curator Guy Maynard (Roger Butcher) and the British Museum, and Maynard's leaking of the story to one local newspaper when Mrs Pretty has already promised it, in due course, to another.
With the arrival of Cambridge archaeologist Charles Phillips (Greg Wagland) at the site, Brown is politely sidelined and his judgements questioned. His painstaking retrieval of the past, with Mrs Pretty looking on from her wicker chair on the brink of the ever-expanding ship-shaped chasm, set against the noisy worlds of museums and media, are a potentially rich seam for the playwright. As Cutting observes, it's a play about 'our own back-stories that influence everything we do', and as the treasure finally finds a home at the British Museum, Mrs Pretty makes her own symbolic burial, laying her beloved Frank's most precious possessions in the earth and finally saying goodbye. But somehow neither the play nor the production quite manage to engage on an emotional level.
One of the joys to be anticipated in Eastern Angles' productions are the seamless musical interludes directed by Pat Whymark, but the sudden massive gear-shifts into cheery snatches of 1930s songs, with only tangential relevance to the action, give some awkward jolts to these proceedings. It doesn't feel possible for two chaps to warble 'When I pretend I'm gay' and take each other for a little waltz round the set, without an irony that is at odds with what the play is otherwise trying to do. At the beginning of its run, only Basil seems completely at ease in his role, but perhaps as the company settle more comfortably into their lines and song cues, the kaleidoscope of impressions the play conjures will begin to fall more coherently into place.
One of the sadder moments of the Sutton Hoo saga is that Basil Brown isn't on site to witness the most significant of the finds, when gold 'comes out of the earth just as it went in still bright and shining.' But perhaps with a little more polishing, the play that tells his story will begin to shine with a little more of EA's usual lustre.
Reviewer: Jill Sharp