In search of a good baddy

Charlie Peace

Coventry Belgrade

****

CHARLIE Peace (1832-79) was a famous Victorian murderer: so famed, in fact, that he featured in Hodge’s red-covered series of Notable British Trials of the Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian era.

But he was not a cynical figure like – say – the Cheshire murderer Dr. Harold Shipman from Hyde,, the psychopathic Brady, or Richard Attenborough’s John Christie, who in 10, Rillington Place callously stood by while another, the young, simple-minded Welshman Timothy Evans (John Hurt) was consigned to the gallows.

If Peace had to hang, it was for killing an irate husband, Arthur Dyson, possibly perpetrated in fear and off-the-cuff self-preservation.

But he had also killed an arresting policeman early in his life, and was indicted for the attempted murder of another. So he was not quite as amiable as his name suggests.

Though Peace adopts a series of successful aliases in Peter Duncan’s colourfully believable, hugely engaging, lovable performance, and is a cad at least in concealing from future amours the fact he had a perfectly good ugly wife (posing as his mother) – actually the violently balding Peace himself wasn’t no good looker himself, from the few photos we have – he was a charmer.

Duncan, who turns Giles Croft’s quickfire show into a minor triumph (Sheffield-born, Peace was everywhere; but Nottingham was crucial, hence this Belgrade-Nottingham Playhouse collaboration), gives a scintillating performance: is absolutely the heart and soul of the party

Though not without some marvellous backups. Like Norman Pace’s showman: a sort of German Expressionism escapee, or benign Cabaret m/c doing well with a role slightly underwritten and insufficiently used to acquire relevance: one of those half-idea that never quite gets chucked; or Bridie Higson, charmingly varying the innocent lass, alluring and put-upon but capable of rampant sex; and finally betrayed; or the vastly experienced Mia Soteriou, beautifully enunciated in the old crone roles; and Philip Rham, whose bumping off as Dyson causes the whole rocky series of disasters, and who appropriately returns as Charlie’s Executioner, William Marwood - the Pierrepoint of his era.

Peter Duncan as jovial murderer Charlie Peace

They all play instruments, too – onstage: Rham an accomplished cellist, serving up searing, even passionate pizzicato and gritty strumming in Jonathan Girling’s really rather sophisticated, carefully understated score. Soteriou is the keyboard player. Nicholas Goode (the do-gooder Rev. Littlewood) is a fiddler. That does something for provincial ensemble playing: it gels a cast even more. So when you add in some terrific top-of proscenium pinpoint projections by William Simpson, constantly evoking period, date and atmosphere, you have a very cheerful and colourful undertaking indeed. 

And this Charlie is nothing if not cheerful. Duncan was a National Theatre player when Sir Larry set it up; he’s stripped off for Alan Strang in Equus, done the Finney/Courtenay role of Billy Liar, excited the little ones presenting Blue Peter and turned in Michael Crawford-quality roles in musicals like Barnum. If Charlie Peace is to him an anti-hero, his triumph is to make Charlie dangerously near to a hero.

The way Charlie slips out on 1870s evenings with a few crowbars and not a hint to his (purported) wife to do over a few well-reconnoitred properties, occasionally being trapped by the fuzz in the process, is deliciously nonchalant. He feels modern: it could as easily be the era of Craig and Bentley. He’s suave, smug, cavalierly risk-taking; but he also cares; about women; keeping his girls in slightly sleazy luxury; about innocent victims. More than once, as they all do, Charlie thinks about going straight. It just doesn’t quite fit, and Duncan enables you to see why. 

Croft directs with his usual canny precision: not mere competence, but utter command. But it’s Barney George’s Punch and Judy show set, with many little touches around that scream Gilbert and Sullivan era at you, that counts for much. Eddie Campbell obviously contributed some of the artwork, to effect. Nick Morris keeps the light a little on the dark side, but he makes the case.

The way it turns out (I didn’t realise) that Peace’s last job was in St. John’s Park, Blackheath – where I grew up, and a property my frail young hands delivered milk to at the ages of 8 to 12 – gave it an added frisson for me. Strange things turn up on your doorstep. Perhaps, in a different era, Charlie might have made me his apprentice, much as my beloved milkman Jack Whybrow did. Now that could have been fun.

Roderic Dunnett

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