PROGRESS Avenue Theatre, Ipswich

MARTYRDOM, MONARCHY, AND MOVING ON

Summer1561. Queen Elizabeth is coming to town: feasts are prepared, the people excited, and Peter Moone the tailor is preparing a play with his fellow workmen from around the docks. The young monarch meanwhile flirts with Robert Dudley, keeps a necessary hauteur with her sycophantic chaplain, and admits “there is a jollity to be found outside London”.

This nimble play by Joanna Carrick (who also directs) launches the fine little theatre built by the Heritage Lottery fund for her Red Rose Chain, a company focused on local, community outreach and social concern. And I admit that given that context, and despite the success of her 2013 Ann Boleyn production at the Tower , I expected little more than a low-budget local diversion, a romp.

I was wrong. Although there is a wild Morris-dance and some larky exchanges, what Carrick delivers is more: an intimate, layered history-play, local and accessible indeed but (like the RSC’s Written on the Heart) engaging with seriousness and sorrow in the emotional cruelties of the Reformation. The cast of six each double – with sophisticated rapid open costume changes – between Ipswich locals and royal entourage, which in certain poignant moments adds a sense both of the gulf between them and their mutual dependence.

Pause for background history (my one criticism is that it could perhaps be made a tiny bit clearer , maybe in a prologue). Move on half a generation from Mantel’s Wolf Hall: Henry VIII’s Reformation was complete by his death in 1547, after a decade in which daily life and devotions changed radically. Protestantism was imposed by law and the sword, but undeniably many people adhered to it emotionally and patriotically. When in 1554 Queen Mary and her Spanish husband restored Catholicism, inquisition and compulsion saw around three hundred burnt alive for refusing to return to Romish ways. Famously Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley – but also dozens of ordinary men and women. Many were in Suffolk, nine burnings here in Ipswich.

So when the new, Protestant Queen Elizabeth made this “Progress” three years later, the memories were raw and hopes of stability fragile. Carrick uses real local figures of the time, including Moone, to express a community still scarred. Some had hid from the inquisitors, some like him lied to save their lives, many saw the burnings. Elsie Bennett’s sad silent Lizzie, the orphan seamstress, has the devastating line “I wish my mother had lied like you”. Bennett doubles, beautifully, as the spirited, playful, determined Queen. And there’s irony and hope in the title’s double meaning: these people, like us in any age, need to move forward. What’s past can’t be undone.

The players’ preparations and desire to celebrate mingle with an undercurrent of unhappiness: community rifts raw from this recent horror. They are interwoven with scenes between Elizabeth and her glorious Dudley (Daniel Abbott) and – in one dark and desperate lamplit scene – with the historic fact that during those Ipswich days Lady Catherine Grey, of the Queen’s entourage, was revealed to have made a treasonous marriage.

And it absolutely works. Moments of a-capella harmony and homely jokes bring the street people’s world to life; individual griefs and angers are pushed down in common purpose. All the cast – Bennett, Abbott, Robert Jackson, Tom McCarron, Lucy Telleck and David Redgrave – handle their double personae with ease (Suffolk accents immaculate, I can affirm). The movement is particularly good (Rachael McCormick choreographs). And while the playlet they finally perform is suitably rude-mechanical, hairs stand up on your neck at the culminating ballad remembering “When two women in Ipswich Town, in the fire did drown…”
As bigotries, beheadings and burnings return to the news, its force redoubles.

Box office http://www.redrosechain.com to 28 feb
rating four 4 Meece Rating

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