Review: We will be Free! Tolpuddle Martyrs Story

tolpuddle-poster-square-6cmx6cm-with-writing-300x300Category     Theatre
Genres     drama, music
Group     Townsend Productions / The Assembly Rooms
Venue     The Assembly Rooms ​
Event Website
Date     10-25 August
Time     12:30
Duration     1 hour 10 minutes
Suitability     12+
Warnings     No latecomers. Under 14’s should be accompanied by an over 14yr old.
Country of Origin     England




The synopsis for this show says that it is ‘based around the true story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Set in 1834 and the extraordinary story of George and Betsy Loveless. He was a Methodist minister and the leader of the six Dorset farm labourers who were tried, convicted and condemned to harsh transportation by an oppressive Government for having the temerity to swear a secret oath and form a secret union to fight against a succession of wage cuts inflicted by the local landowner.’

This then is a show with a message and that’s made clear from the start with The Casterbridge Mummers
depicting Saint George fighting and slaying the wicked Dragon. There is no doubt who represents good and evil here, no ‘grey areas’.

In the 1840s the ‘dragons’ were those exploiting the poor and dispossessed. The six men arrested in Tolpuddle in 1837 were trying to gain a modest rise in their daily wage from a pitiful eight shillings. Before organising a  Union they had sought to reach agreement with the Farmers and Gentry but as the show depicts they reneged on an agreement to match wages in other  neighbouring areas.

The sentences for stepping out of line could be draconian. Hanging was common, Transportation for minor felonies was widely used. It was no small matter to oppose ‘the powers that be’ during this period and could lead to personal ruin. Only a burning desire for Justice and the fact that it was next to impossible to live on the wages paid led people to risk the penalties and fight for change.

Elizabeth Eves and Neil Gore (also the writer) portray Betsy Loveless and her labourer husband, George. Despite the serious subject there is much fun as they play the different characters, both good and evil. The  show tells the story of Tolpuddle with humour and in song. There is a pantomime aspect to the show with the audience invited to hiss and boo  the establishment figures. That is just one aspect of the show, however, as it is also a love story and it shows the difficulties and pressures caused by adverse, even bleak circumstances and the sorrow of being forcibly parted.

There is a small, sparse set with just a bit of back-projection but in truth it is the music and acting that you focus on when watching.

I found the show both educational and entertaining. Discovering that a point in favour of the Tolpuddle men was the swearing  of secret oaths by members of the Orange Order (including a relative of the King) fascinated me. The  succeeds in  setting the story into a social context making us aware of the effects of enclosure and the establishment fear of unrest and revolution.

The Chartist lyrics woven into some of the songs were great and the musical abilities of the actors (showing mastery of accordion, mandolin, violin and tabor) humbling . This show will be of interest to all those who care about Social Justice (and at times it is heart wrenching) but it is more than that – it is fun!

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

Good news!  We will be Free! is going on tour. Check here for dates and venues.


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