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Dare Devil Rides To Jarama at The Bussey Building, Peckham

Dare Devil, David Heywood
Dare Devil, David Heywood – credit Daniella Beattie

Dare Devil Rides To Jarama is a sizzling pot pourri of folk songs, chants, poetry, clever staging, multi-role playing and confetti performed at break-neck speed by two actors who keep the audience on the edge of their seats from start to finish.

Neil Gore’s play, a follow-up to last year’s United We Stand is, like its predecessor, an intriguing and informative historical document cataloging the rise of motorbike sport – speedway/dirt-track riding and wall-of-death stunts – in the 1920s before moving in the second half to give us a fascinating insight into the Spanish Civil War.

Gore himself is clearly in his element – as writer, motorbike builder, musician, and performer – as he prances, chortles, mutters and goose-steps his way through a variety of roles and operates the lighting (designed by Daniella Beattie) and projection from his handily placed laptop on stage. “It’s gone wrong!” he exclaims to the audience at one point as the stage suddenly goes dark. “Keep rattling for a minute!” Yes, we, the audience had the ability to rattle as each of us had been provided with a miniature plastic “football rattle” (banned from matches in the ’seventies as possible weapons) emblazoned with the logo “unite the UNION”. One of the features of Director Louise Townsend’s approach is to utilise the audience as the mob in crowd scenes.

Very clever, very effective. Thus whether we are cheering on biker Clem Becket, or participating in a communist party meeting or deliberately drowning out Oswald Moseley we shout and jeer and heckle and sing and punch the air and naturally rattle our rattles. The resultant cacophony creates an electric atmosphere and fitting backdrop to the engaging and moving story that unfolds. This is not so much “audience participation” in the normal sense of
the term but more “audience engagement” – we are part of the action, helping and enabling the story to be told effectively. Townsend Productions don’t do “fourth wall”: the performers chat to us as they provide rattles before the play proper starts, they sell us programmes from the stage and always there are the trademark asides and winks and nudges throughout the show as we are included and immersed.

Gore is a master of the multi-role art switching smoothly from one character to another by change of hat or jacket or facial expression or just accent and he engenders a vibrant feel-good factor through his guitar-playing and banjo-plucking and earthy folk-song renditions – Musical Director John Kirkpatrick again works his folksy magic for the company. In the second half Gore sticks mainly to the character Spriggy – posh writer Chris Caudwell (AKA Christopher St. John Sprigg) – and his talent for comedy comes to the fore in the Fred-Karno’s- rag-tag-and-bobtail army sequence: the Brits who joined the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil war were provided with fake rifles, firearms without bullets and machine guns that jammed easily which shouldn’t be fired “often” in case they got too hot. Farce fights fascism would seem to be the best way to describe it. Gore’s laid-back, languid self-deprecating Spriggy is a great foil to the earnest, driven, idealist Clem Becket, the Dare Devil of the title, played to marvellous effect by David Heywood. Heywood captures Becket’s fire in the belly, his glint in the eye, his passion for the cause and his dogged determination with deft characterisation that brings to life a forgotten character in a largely forgotten war. 500,000 people died in the Spanish Civil war. The last surviving British volunteer of the International Brigade died just last week. General Franco, supported by the Hitler/Mussolini fascist axis, eventually defeated the Republican government which was left floundering by the British and French non-interventionist policy and ruled on as dictator until his death in 1975. It was left to the likes of Clem Beckett and his loyal lieutenant Spriggy to attempt to put into effect the anti-fascist dictum of “No Pasarán!” – They Shall Not Pass.

Director Townsend must feel she is blessed with her malleable, energetic and entirely empathetic cast of two who take us on what is at times a white-knuckle ride and at other times a deeply moving story. Townsend’s adept direction, which combines practicality with creative flair, mesmerises the audience as we take our own dare devil trip, not wanting to look down in case we fall off. There is a strong anti-fascist message here, of course – we’d
expect nothing less from the decidedly political Townsend Productions – but first and foremost Dare Devil Rides To Jarama is outstanding entertainment, worth catching for that as it bikes on around the country for the rest of the year – and, of course, to find out about the confetti.

5 Star Rating
Review by Peter Yates

Marking the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, Dare Devil Rides To Jarama is a world premiere based on the experiences of The International Brigades during The Spanish Civil War.

Looking at the powerful political and economic forces that engulfed 1930s Europe, Dare Devil Rides to Jarama follows why so many ordinary people made the extraordinary choice to leave family and livelihoods and fight in a brutal war so far from home.

When Spaniards rose up to resist General Franco’s military rebellion in 1936, it was an inspiration to millions of people worldwide. Their heroic struggle alerted the rest of the world to the threat of fascism. Dare Devil Rides To Jarama commemorates and celebrates the contribution and sacrifice of the Volunteer International Brigades, including two and a half thousand from Britain and Ireland.

Compelling and humorous, Dare Devil Rides To Jarama focuses on the contrasting lives of Clem Beckett, a Lancashire blacksmith and famous star of the speedway track, and Christopher Caudwell, a renowned writer, poet and philosopher. Both men were killed together at Jarama in February 1937, having become friends as members of the British Battalion’s machine-gun company.

Through stirring song, poetry and compelling movement and dance, Dare Devil Rides To Jarama captures the raw passions and emotions of the time. Musical direction is from acclaimed folk singer and squeeze box player John Kirkpatrick.

The play has a particular resonance in our current climate as it examines how the economic pressures in the 1930s contributed to the rise of xenophobic tendencies throughout Europe and the failure of a unified left to join together to successfully challenge these forces.

Dare Devil Rides To Jarama aims to bring the full story of the compelling dispute to life in this powerful and thought-provoking new play. This production follows Townsend Productions’ critically acclaimed United We Stand, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and We Will Be Free.

Dare Devil Rides To Jarama
Running time 2 hours (including an interval)
Notes Ages 11+
Box Office Tickets are available from individual theatres or online at:


  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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