The 18th century was a time of political and social upheaval, as Britain’s growth as an imperial power – based on the expansion of the slave trade and the beginnings of empire – saw the rich spending extravagantly while the poor lived on the brink of starvation or execution. It was also a time of cultural upheaval, including the publication of the earliest novels. Bristol-based Tobacco Tea Theatre Company’s new production draws inspiration from the period’s decadence and cruelty, with a distinctively modern sensibility.
Stand and Deliver (written by Christopher Cutting and directed by Peter Taylor) takes place in 1736 in the county of Monkshire, which is agog with rumours of a mysterious highwayman. Frustrated Evelyn Bugg (Jasmine Horn) decides to seek him out in the hope of becoming his apprentice, while the highwayman attracts the wrath of the villainous Lord Chief Justice Augustus Standing (Joey Bartram) after he steals a deed crucial to a conspiracy to seize control of the Spice Islands Company.
The play juggles a knotty plot full of revelations and double-crosses at furious speed. The cast of five actors throw themselves into playing multiple roles, and the company makes up for the restrictions of low-budget theatre by cleverly evoking the period setting with just a few deliberately cheap props, including a fake skeleton and a basketball. Stand and Deliver calls attention to its own artifice by cracking jokes about the tropes it uses, with a newspaper salesman proclaiming his wares as “England’s finest source of convenient exposition.” With a soundtrack including David Bowie and Arctic Monkeys and a web of homages to sources such as the films of Sergio Leone and Quentin Tarantino – despite its parody nature, the violence is often very gory – Stand and Deliver is as much about modern pop culture as the 18th century. It’s a play full of irony and artifice – the fact that a major plot point involves a “taxidermy lobster” tells you everything you need to know about how seriously it takes itself.
The raucous, irreverent humour means that the play would appeal to fans of Monty Python. It is also reminiscent of How to Win Against History, the similarly anarchistic and anachronistic musical from the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe about the real-life cross-dressing aristocrat Henry Cyril Paget. Stand and Deliver isn’t given to po-faced political commentary, but its subversive style suits its celebration of overturning the established order, as the bloodthirsty but essentially honourable outlaws find themselves racing against time to thwart the cartoonishly evil and stupid aristocrats. Stand and Deliver is a broad-brushed but bracing production that’s guaranteed to raise your spirits by the time you leave the theatre.
Stand and Deliver will be at the Brighton Fringe from the 25-28 May and tickets can be found here. In August the production will be heading to the Edinburgh Fringe.