A glimpse of Regency splendour

Black-Eyed Susan: Douglas Jerrold, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until September 22It probably wouldn't have mattered which play was chosen to re-open the Theatre Royal at Bury.

Black-Eyed Susan: Douglas Jerrold, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until September 22

It probably wouldn't have mattered which play was chosen to re-open the Theatre Royal at Bury. This treasure of a Regency theatre, lovingly and very expensively restored to perfection, was bound to be the star of the show.

Yet to revive Douglas Jerrold's 'nautical melodrama', adapted by Carl Miller, is something of a masterstroke. First staged in 1829 (though not in Bury), only ten years after William Wilkins opened his new Suffolk theatre, the play utterly fits the occasion.

There's an air of celebration at the Royal and rabbits are pulled wonderfully out of hats.


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It started before the play with the surprise sweeping entrance, to audience gasps, of Martin Shaw, who delivered a verse prologue exhorting the audience, most of whom, he said, showed no outward sign of the pox, to behave themselves.

Among other targets, his verse picked out the critic, whose qualities, he suggested, rhymed with wit. I was put on my mettle.

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Douglas Jerrold, a close journalist friend of Charles Dickens, was a prime mover behind Punch Magazine. Dickens admired his keen satirical wit and they shared many views on society's ills.

No play was more popular in the nineteenth century than Jerrold's Black-Eyed Susan. It's a simple, almost pantomime, tale of a pretty but oppressed wife (sweetly played by Sophia Linden) whose sailor husband is away at sea. She's harassed into poverty by her lecherous old uncle and landlord, as obnoxious a stage baddie as you'll come across. The growling Steven Osborne elicits boos whenever he shows his face.

The sailor, Will - proud-chestedly played by Philip Ralph - returns home from the Napoleonic wars full of very funny, non-stop naval gobbledegook - nothing, even his wife's physical attributes, are described in anything other than nautical metaphors. Jerrold had been a sailor himself, so it's authentic.

Like John Gay in The Beggar's Opera (Black-Eyed Susan is taken on from Gay's poem of that name), Jerrold takes the opportunity to have a go at the Law, the wickedness of grasping landlords, and the cruelty of the debtors' jail.

Colin Blumenau's sure-footed production is full of tableaux and poses, none captured better than by his son, Jack Blumenau who skips and chirps like a moving illustration from a Chares Dickens novel.

This is all joyous stuff. But Kit Surrey's wonderful period set of flats and painted backdrops, of ingeniously moving boats, waves and flown seagulls, and with cut-out court-martial figures, will stay in the memory.

Ivan Howlett

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