The Transit of Venus
New Century House, Manchester (24:7 Theatre Festival)
As he showed with last year's play for 24:7, Telling Lives, writer Eric Northey ploughs his own furrow through the festival: he is the only one to take a detailed look at a historical subject rather than dealing with contemporary issues, he is the only one to charge for a programme (although it does contains a lot of historical information about the play's subjects) and he sets his play within a solid, well-researched political, social and historical world. Where this didn't really work with last year's play, it works beautifully here.
Whereas Northey has, in his own words in the programme, exercised "a little judicial historical licence", his main characters are based on real people in Lancashire in 1639, when the English Civil War was about to tear the country apart. William Crabtree was a Lancashire cloth merchant with a strong interest in astronomy, and to that end he had obtained an Italian telescope; Jeremiah Horrocks was a brilliant young mathematician from Toxteth who was sent to Emmanuel College, Cambridge as a sizar, a poor student who receives assistance often in return for performing some kind of work.
While the two enthusiastic mathematicians and astronomers corresponded frequently, it is not known whether they actually met—they were due to meet the day after Horrocks's death—but Northey has imagined Horrocks turning up on Crabtree's doorstep in Broughton, Lancashire unannounced with letters of introduction. In this version, Crabtree is very much the senior partner in status as well as in age with a daughter close to Horrocks's age, whereas in reality the two men were only eight years apart in age, and Horrocks's Puritanism is strongly emphasised.
These elements enable Northey to bring in the religious and political turmoil in the country and even to subtly introduce a romantic subplot without any of it being gratuitous, all tied together cleverly. There is also plenty of humour in here, plus a fascinating story of a significant scientific discovery with a strong local connection. The only small quibble is that the scene in which Horrocks is confronted by Royalist soldiers goes on for a bit too long and becomes repetitive, but even here Northey has twisted history to make a tragic real event relevant to the politics in the play.
There is a superb pairing at the heart of this play between Nathan Morris as Horrocks and Lucy Ward as Crabtree's highly-educated daughter Jenny, both of whom give superb performances. There is good support from 24:7 stalwart John McElhatton as Crabtree and in the smaller roles from Sarah Jane-Lee as Horrocks's mother and from Ben Rigby and Wesley Pearce as both Cavalier and Roundhead soldiers.
Reviewer: David Chadderton