In Norfolk, we tend to be quietly, fondly proud of our surroundings – with an emphasis on ‘quietly.’ The tradition of Norfolk understatement is legendary, rivalled only by our keen attachment to the smooth horizons and vast skies which dominate our severe rural landscape. Accordingly, it shouldn’t have surprised me (as a local) that I had never heard the Norfolk folktale of John Chapman, the dreaming pedlar who found a fortune buried in his garden and used it generously to restore his beloved town of Swaffham, even though the story is almost six hundred years old; because we don’t shout about things, most of the time, round here.
However, we should. Alan Huckle has dusted off the pedlar’s adventure for posterity, bringing Chapman’s story of dreaming conviction and calm defiance to life for a new generation, and giving his characters plenty to sing (if not shout) about, in a simple, clean production with minimal scenery, Medieval costumes and natural Norfolk accents. Swaffham is in thrall to the evil Lord Thomas Styward (a joyously dastardly Alan Bolton), the town crumbling into disrepair as Styward siphons off taxes into his own coffers. Chapman, though penniless, proclaims that he will himself start the fund for the town’s restoration, by following the instructions of his dream to find treasure; and he actually finds not one treasure, but two, in the course of the plot, stubbornly clinging to his dreams in the face of hardship and ridicule. Styward, meanwhile, has unpleasant matrimonial designs on Chapman’s pretty daughter Margaret (Beth Spaul), who is already warmly attached to the bashful shepherd Garth (Gary Stodel); other Swaffham noblemen grow progressively more suspicious of Styward; and three angry Essex farmers are battling Styward in a dispute over land, now turning ugly. Throw a spectral, unscrupulous yet dim henchman into the mix (Rob Backhouse as the well-named Mudworthy), a couple of fabulously no-nonsense alehouse landladies (April Secrett as Rosie, Cherryl Jeffries as Desima) and some strong company scenes – complete with a dog on stage – and quite an evening’s entertainment unfurls.
Standout central performances from Tim Hall, gloriously clear-voiced as a lovable and ultimately admirable John Chapman, and Julie Bolton as his superbly strong, straight-talking wife Catheryne, with skilled support from Peter Sowerbutts as Rauf Yolgrave, lift this production from earnest am-dram into something altogether more genuine and interesting. Huckle’s score, with piano and violin accompaniment occasionally fleshed out by drums on stage, is at its best in catchy, folk-inspired numbers: from the rollicking, sprightly “Never believe in dreams” and “The Ballad of Robin Hood and the Pedlar” to charming slower pieces: “The pale moon rising”, and moving soprano trio “Be Strong”. The libretto goes from deadpan to hilarious: a brilliant duel-duet between Chapman and his wife entitled “The Pig Sty” (you’ll find out why) provokes ripples of laughter. But there’s wholesome folk wisdom too, and everywhere the unimposing warmth and honesty of rural life. The cast is uneven, the performance feels patchy here and there, and pace might be improved with a few judicious cuts, particularly of repeated choruses. But for charm, sincerity and real worth, The Pedlar of Swaffham is worth staying with until journey’s end.
Reviewed at the John Peel Centre for Creative Arts, Stowmarket on Friday 15 September
- 22 September at the Fisher Theatre, Bungay (01986 897 130)
- 23 September at Convent School Theatre Swaffham (firstname.lastname@example.org – charity performance)