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12 April 2013


The Long Life and Great Good Fortune of John Clare
Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford
Friday 12th April 2013
There is a long heritage of troubled minds taking comfort in the familiarity of music or literature, and in Eastern Angles new play this spring we explore the story of one such mind through the distresses of another.
In the present, psychiatrist Melody is treating patient "John" who believes he is the 19th century Northamptonshire poet John Clare.  Inspiring Melody, and indirectly her partner Rafe, to investigate more about the life and work of the real John Clare we begin to discover details about this interesting character and his tragic story.  Through slick changes of scene we switch to the early 19th century, as the same actors play Clare, his wife and his doctor.  We see Clare writing and being hailed for his poetry, but as he continues to struggle to support his family his mental health begins to suffer until he eventually takes up residence at High Beach asylum in Essex.

A cast of just three actors portray all of the characters, with minor changes of costume handled smoothly between flowing scenes and simple a set that works equally well as Clare's Northamptonshire cottage 200 years ago and the modern gardens of Melody's home and workplace.  The shed that takes up a large corner of the set stands out at first for the disproportion of its relative physical dominance on the small stage against its seemingly irrelevant purpose, however all becomes clear in the final scenes and it works with beautifully theatrical symbolism to illustrate John's story, as Melody's treatment progresses in the modern day. 

Henry Devas plays 19th century doctor Skrimshire, charismatically narrating the scenes as an outsider, allowing an informed audience to believe in the natural development of the characters in the Clare family without the need for any trite self-references.  In the modern setting he plays television writer Rafe, partner and sounding board to psychiatrist Melody, who is played with sincerity and energy by Louise Mai Newberry.  Switching seamlessly with clear characterisation into the very different character of Clare's loyal wife Patty, she is particularly moving in the scene after Clare's long walk home.  Richard Sandells is entirely captivating in an achingly authentic performance as both modern day John and his 19th century namesake.  The mental illnesses dealt with in both strands of this story are explored with care and understanding, and the direction and performance in this central role are sympathetic and absorbing.

If you have yet to see an Eastern Angles show you are missing out, as they put on some of the best small-scale work in the region.  The Long Life and Great Good Fortune of John Clare is is an example of another superb production from East Anglia's eminent touring company. 

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