Some things are designed to come back and haunt you. In my school English Literature class, we studied a selection of poems called A Book Of Narrative Verse, a small blue volume which fitted into a pocket. It contained such “gems” as Byron’s The Prisoner Of Chillon, William Cowper’s John Gilpin and George Crabbe’s Peter Grimes (the basis of the Britten opera). There was also Robert Burns’ Tam O’Shanter about which I was teased unmercifully simply because my surname appears in the first line. And then there was The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, a poem written in the early 20th century but set in the reign of the Hanoverian kings, a spirited and moody tale with a bloodthirsty conclusion and an interesting use of rhythm which mimicked the sound of the dashing hero/villain’s steed. I recall this one particularly because of having to learn it by heart – we were all assigned different poems to memorise… and this was mine. Rather sadly I also recall how over excited everybody got because it featured the word “breast” – not once, but twice – and I had to say it out loud. I’m still recovering!
With that in mind I was particularly intrigued to see what a stage adaptation would make of such a tale. Recently performed at The Space and, in their now customary manner, livestreamed from there for one of the performances, the show will shortly be available on demand. It is presented by a new group Motley Crew who have emerged from Goldsmith’s University. The adaptation by August Iago is pretty faithful to the original narrative – up to a point. Feisty innkeeper’s daughter Bess (Emily Millwood) is looking for a way out from her mundane life – after all she can quote Shakespeare. So, she embarks on a dangerous liaison with the titular character, meeting by moonlight and swapping vows of undying love. Meanwhile infatuated Tim (Andrew Houghton) the stable boy plans to bring Bess to him by betraying the dashing hero to the disreputable Captain (Dean McCollough) whose mission it is to bring the shadowy figure to the gallows. Watching these events is put upon scullery maid with a big secret, Anna (Laura May Price). And that’s where the “up to a point” remark comes into play. Without revealing the plot twist I can say no more though it’s not a particularly difficult riddle to solve especially if you take into account Motley Crew’s avowed intention “to reintroduce LGBTIA+ narratives into historical settings on stage”. It’s an interesting notion and one that gives this rather hoary old ballad a modern sensibility.
Director Hannah Lindstedt utilises the tropes of melodrama to structure the story and given the source material could hardly do little else. Grand passions, windswept vistas, stormy weather, spooky goings on are all invoked. There’s a tyrannical (though unseen) father figure, put upon servants, a sneering villain and a damsel in distress – if the railways had been invented by then the former would have been tying the latter to the tracks. Some archaic dialogue remains intact but the introduction of modern phraseology does jar here and there, e.g. “I won’t tell you shit!” and this means the piece never quite decides which camp it is sitting in. Costumes (Xena Saffrom) are suggestive of the era rather than striving for complete accuracy and I appreciated Luke Vella’s sound design complete with Ennio Morricone’s trademark whistle whenever the mysterious highwayman was being invoked. The cast of just four sketch out their characters well though the trajectory used for timid Tim’s personality change to gaslighting abuser was probably a bit too rushed. That aside the young cast show distinct promise and enter into the spirit of the piece with firm commitment.
I’m afraid I found the ending confusing (but perhaps I’m just to attuned to the original) and think the piece could do with some judicious cutting here and there but this is a brave attempt to bring something long confined to a children’s book of verse into a contemporary space. Given my personal history with the piece it ticked many boxes for me and at least brought some solace over something that has bugged me for decades. Having spent all that time committing the poem to memory it was annoying that in my final exam there wasn’t a question on it. So, I never got to write my essay. Now I just have and to Motley Crew I would say “For this relief, much thanks” and best wishes going forward.