Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Song Thief -Review- People's Theatre

The Song Thief.
20 September 2011
Edwardian Northumberland is the setting for this romantic tale of a young London composer who arrives in Allendale to experience its vanishing folk culture before it disappears forever. His search for one particular haunting love song arouses conflicting passions between the locals and their visitor.

The Song Thief is set in beautiful Allendale (the delightful stage set design of a lush meadow (dale) with a prominent oak tree, really took us there) in 1911. No MTV, no 24 hour radio stations blasting whatever music you need on tap, no hard drives to store the masses of recorded digital files we take for granted these days. If you wanted music back in the day, you had to go out and see it for yourself. 
Stephen Haggard (Matthew Cummins) a composer, wants to take music back to the grass roots. He wants the songs and the tales of 'the people', he travels the country armed with his Edison Phonogram to record songs that he could reproduce on stage, giving his audience a massive insight into what goes on in the towns, cities and the valleys. 
Haggard on his journey stumbles across Allendale as a place that even to look at is a song in itself.
On the train journey there he comes across a couple of girls singing local sonnets that inspires his first impression of the region. One of the girls Mary Humble (Catherine Dryden) is as sweet as the tune that comes out of her mouth. 
Haggard boards with local school teacher Dodd Armstrong ( Peter Harrison), who has many a tale to tell him about the area and the people who live in it. Armstrong is a cautious man, happy to live out his life living alone, but with a sorry tale from the past. He has a fine voice on him, singing the popular Geordie songs, but Haggard wants the songs of the land.
In meetings with the locals he comes across Willie Sparke (Peter McAndrew) and his wife Bella (Sarah McLane). Haggard records a gritty tune from Willie that excites him into wanting more, Bella tells him that he should go in search of Abel Humble (Steve Robertson) a Shepard, who she explains has a wonderful voice and a song that will highlight any performance.
In the days to come Haggard bumps into Mary and she explains that indeed her father is a great singer, but hasn't sung since she was young. She explains that since her mother left, he can't and wont bring himself to sing. This is something that Haggard wants to bring into the open, and get the song that he needs.
In a further meeting with Bella, she gossips as to the reasoning around the Humble case and sets out a very bleak vision of the lonesome and vociferous Shepard. The shy-ish Haggard is intrigued by Mary and courts her, some would say that he does this to heighten his chances of getting that elusive song from her father, but this is left up to the viewer to decide.
In another meeting Haggard introduces himself to Lady Plenmellor (Moira Valentine) who in turn sees herself as a suitor for him, much to his grievance. Her husband the philandering Lord of the Manor (Christopher Goulding) is 'away on business', so she invites Haggard and Armstrong along for a formal dinner. At this dinner Lady Plenmellor explains that Humble is the Shepard that looks after her flock, and she will do anything to help him to get that Song.
Mary meanwhile invites Haggard around to her home for tea with her father, in the hope that he will loosen his morals and tune up his voice. Humble doesn't and flies off the handle at the thought of it, leaving Haggard both embarrassed and frustrated.
The next encounter with them all is the Annual Shepard meet, where again Lady Plenmellor makes a play for Haggard, but his only plan is to get Humble inebriated enough to let his guard down. This backfires and both are as drunk as each other. When Haggard gets back home Armstrong is very down on him, and thinks he should respect the Shepard and his wishes and back down, maybe even leave. This might be the only way that Armstrong could get into the wavelength of Mary, who he hopes will marry him. When she turns him down, Mary needs to see Haggard before he goes. She explains that her father is unwell and if all fails he may take his tune to the grave.
Haggard does leave back to the bright lights of London, but not before Mary and her father have a good talk about her mother and brushing aside the gossip, get down to the truth of her childhood.
We next see Haggard in full orchestral set up at his concerto, introduced by the one and only Lady Plenmellor, which sent titters around the audience. During the interval, Mary reintroduces herself to him, and catches up with talk that has lagged between their last meeting. A Lot has gone on since. Mary is there with Armstrong, now a couple.
When Haggard is just about to start his final session of music, Mary bursts onto the stage, introduces herself and sings the song that is so important to her, and of course Haggard.

The Song Thief, was originally written as a radio play on the Beeb in 2009 by the brilliant Michael Chaplin, who I first reviewed in the wonderful A walk on part-fall of new Labour, at Newcastle's Live Theatre. His writing style is so vivid with life and colour, bringing his thoughts onto the stage with great aplomb. Very well directed by Kate Wilkins who with the great cast of fine actors has produced a fantastic thought provoking play, that deals with jealousy, painful memories and close-knit communities.
As I said before the stage set up was amazing, and was theatre in itself, a big pat on the back to Rachel Holland and all the technical wizards behind the curtain who set the stage alight with wonderful energy.

Runs until Saturday 24th.
Michael Hunter.


  1. As someone who was thinking about seeing the Song Thief this week, there's not much point now as this has detailed the entire plot including who gets together with who and the ending! A review isn't a synopsis. Very disappointed.

  2. Hi JB..I totally get where you are coming from, not one of my best reviews by a long shot. With this being a new play, I wanted to tell the reader what it was all about, but I just kept on going, and for that I am sorry. I did write it the day after seeing it (normally I sit down and compose as soon as the play has finisbed), so I think I thought about it to much, not sure if that makes sense to either of us, but it isn't a cop out. But the skills of the production and the acting alone are worthy of the price of admission.
    I really hope you do go along as see it, sorry again.