Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review: 'Dare Devil Rides to Jarama' at the Bussey Building, 25th October 2016

I consider myself pretty politically engaged. I volunteer on political campaigns. I attend marches. I help out with advocacy groups. I work in law reform. But would I pick up a rifle, head overseas and shoot fascists? In my romantic fantasies I'd like to think so, but in reality I probably don't have the guts. But, in the mid 1930s 2,500 men and women did. These were the men and women who formed the British Battalion of the International Brigades.

They were ordinary people, often with no military experience. Yet they recognised the evils of fascism, left their jobs and families behind and many ended up making the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt to stop Franco in his tracks. Somewhat overshadowed by World War II, the Brigades are an unjustly overlooked part of Britain's history, an inspirational lesson in the common man's willingness to stand up to evil at great personal risk.

Neil Gore's Dare Devil Rides to Jarama follows two such volunteers, speedway champion / dare devil Clem Beckett and milquetoast Pimlico writer Chris Caudwell. Were it not for the war its unlikely that the two would ever have crossed paths, one being a grease-smeared Mancunian and the other an earnest yet nervy London writer. Yet they found common ground in their anger at social injustice and corruption, each sincerely believing in the powerful transformative power of socialism.

Gore begins in the twenties, laying out the early speedway career of Beckett. As he rises through the ranks and achieves a modicum of celebrity he begins to rail against the exploitative treatment of racers. While he and his friends are out risking life and limb, the suits at the top pocket the profits while pushing for faster and more dangerous racing to draw in the crowds. Soon he's a proud member of the Young Communist League, gradually making his way through the party system until he's travelling the world as a sporting emissary of the British Communist Party.

It's just as he's settling down with a new wife and business that the call to arms comes. The mid 30s are dark times in Europe - Hitler, Mussolini and Franco all ascendant and Britain's Oswald Mosley eager to emulate their successes. For Beckett it's a no-brainer to heed the call to defend Spain from fascism and try to turn back the tide. 

Caudwell is a different story - a slightly camp, bourgeois sounding intellectual, preferring to bury himself in party organisation and literature rather than engage in direct combat. Yet the argument that bullets are more effective that ink in defending Spain is difficult to refute, and soon the unlikely pair are off to the front, and eventually to the Battle of Jarama - one of the bloodiest conflicts the Brigades ever faced.

Split into two distinct halves, the first is a chirpy music hall biography of Clem Beckett. Played by David Heywood, Beckett is the epitome of the cheeky, cheery Northern lad, always ready with a wink and a smile. He's a dynamic, fun and easy to like character, simultaneously irreverent and sincere. Heywood infuses his every action with energetic life, grinning with happiness as he tackles motorbike stunts while doing his best to live his motto: "forever forward". 

Post interval we're in Spain and the tone shifts considerably. Gone are the banjo and music hall trappings, replaced by a poetic seriousness. Clem Beckett's problems have progressed from motorbike accidents to worrying about his malfunctioning machine gun, a lack of ammunition, fighting with untrained and demoralised soldiers and a daredevil dealing with his own fears. Though not devoid of laughs, there's a poignancy and finality to these scenes as the soldiers realise that, despite all their bravery, they're militarily outmatched.

Dare Devil to Jarama often feels like a history lesson. There's a lot of necessary exposition to chew through; whether it's something as expansive as the history of socialism and antifascism in Britain or the politics of the Spanish Civil War; or as particular as the shoddy design and firing techniques of the Chauchat rifle ("the worst machine gun ever"). Working in Gore's favour is that the history is a) really interesting and b) he never once loses sight of his characters.

This makes the dense history navigable: we care about these charismatic characters and their political enthusiasm is infectious. In Beckett's voice, the dusty old anthems of the Young Communist League are infused with new vigour and life. Gore (playing every character other than Beckett) has a neat line in mimicry, excellently delivering the inspirational speeches that drive men like Beckett towards combat. A Peckham theatre in 2016 is a long way from the Spanish Civil War, but we feel like we have a glimmer of how these men might have flt.

Helping out with that is a generous smattering of audience participation. Heywood and Gore are constantly making eye contact with us and gently prodding the fourth wall. We're also provided with Unite branded plastic rattles to wave at key points, allowing us to create the din of the speedway and the enthusiasm of a much bigger crowd. We're also invited to sing along to the songs and, best of all, boo the hell out of Oswald Mosley (if only they'd supplied rotten tomatoes...).

By the time the play ends (to extremely enthusiastic applause) it's more than done its job. Gore has successfully interwoven history and politics, as well as doing justice to Clem Beckett and Chris Caudwell's lives. Dare Devil Rides to Jarama left me feeling inspired and informed, yet also slightly guilty. Would I do there the same if I were in their shoes? Just how many men and women of the International Brigade's calibre are around today? 

The only contemporary parallel is extraordinarily depressing - the current people inspired to leave their country and take up arms for their beliefs are would be ISIS soldiers, eager to spread religious fundamentalism, mindless violence and oppression across desperate communities. (Man, maybe things really are just getting shitter and shitter.)

Let's leave that aside for now. Neil Gore's play is a great piece of drama and a worthy tribute to the men and women of the International Brigade. If you have the slightest bit of interest in history and politics it's a fascinating watch.


Dare Devil Rides to Jarama is at the Bussey Building until Oct 29th, then on tour. Tickets here.

Photographs by Daniella Beattie

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