The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees, the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas… not exactly, it was a balmy summer evening inside the ancient Monk Bar, but you could feel the chill in the air as a small room of theatre-goers were asked to join hands and summon delinquent tearaway Dick Turpin.
Written by Annie Hodson and performed by York theatre troupe Off Kilter, ‘Dick Turpin: The Celebrity Highwayman’ explores themes of fame and guides us as we smash through centuries-old perceptions and discover who Turpin really was – faced with the question ‘Dashing rogue or ill-fated deserter?’
Glamourised by his admirers (played by Pip Barclay and Chris Lakin) but realised as a troubled coward, Turpin is put on trial as both sides of his character are demonstrated. We’re asked to rethink our original verdict of the claret-robed, ex-Essex Gang renegade, played by Sam McAvoy. Stripping away the villainy and dashing persona to reveal a side to Turpin that didn’t survive in legend through a series of cleverly integrated flashbacks, the memories of the ghost of Turpin.
The long-standing setting for the evening lends a layer of authenticity to the performance, as Turpin and his storytellers dash about the stone floor, bare and mucky-footed. Using the centre of the ancient room as their focal point, Off Kilter told their story to a captivated crowd of less than thirty. Through a fast-paced and physical narrative with titter-inducing choreography, pindrop-silence drama and minstrel melodies, Off Kilter brought us a renewed and reimagined version of Turpin’s doomed life story, up to his hanging at Knavesmire. Where else more fitting to resurrect Dick Turpin than this tower in York, just down the road from where the grave of his alias John Palmer lies?
Drawing a parallel with modern celebrity, Hodson and Off Kilter examine how the legacy they leave may not always be true. The subtle reference to vile Essex catchphrase “shut up” was met with amusement from some audience members which further illustrated the pantomime of being a public personality, but as McAcoy, Lakin and Barclay showcased their highly polished standard of handovers, swashbuckling and occasionally acrobatic skills, that’s the only similarity with pantomime there was. As the storytellers baited and coaxed the Highwayman into revealing his memories, we found ourselves wanting that too – yet after seeing the less-dastardly side to Dick, we were left pitying him when he finally met his maker at the gallows, and wanting to know more.
One&Other recently discussed why there is such a wealth of great theatre happening within our city walls (in the case of this performance, literally, at the Richard III Museum in Monk Bar). Perhaps it’s because we’re not short of inspiring subject matter with our rich history. Off Kilter stood, with the promise of unravelling the thread of legend, and they most certainly delivered.
Dick Turpin: Celebrity Highwayman runs until August 24 at Richard III Museum, Monk Bar.
Tickets available here.