Dick Turpin gallops on stage in premiere

Dick Turpin’s Last Ride by Daniel O’Brien with music by Pat Whymark at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, until September 24, November 1-5, then November 8-10, New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

What a great gallop! Somebody once said: “When the truth spoils a good legend, stick to the legend.” And that’s what the battle is all about in this rollicking new musical looking back at the life of the famous highwayman in a kind of 3D. It’s truth versus invention.

We have William Harrison Ainsworth defending his best-seller Rookwood – written a century after the event - in which Turpin rides Black Bess overnight 200 miles from London to York and boasting about how his books are outselling Charles Dickens. Posterity, he reasons, can embellish the truth because novelists are allowed to rescue lost reputations.

Ranged against him is Thomas Kyll, a historian, also from the 19th century. He brandishes the transcript of the 1739 court case that sent the robber to the scaffold, insisting that only the facts are valid. And there’s also Richard Bayes, a publican who knew the highwayman and wrote The Genuine History of Dick Turpin. But he’s a rogue and as liable to be free with the actuality as anybody else.

Cleverly, as each puts his case, they all move into the actions that support their search for the real Dick Turpin, with an edgy script that drifts purposefully into melodrama here and there, all cantered along by melodic songs that continue telling the story. And the whole thing is punctuated by brilliant little bits of comedy.

We are quickly aware that Ainsworth’s story is complete hokum. Turpin never made the ride and there was no such horse as Black Bess. But his reasoning and polemics are so sharp that we know that truth is likely to come in a poor second in this horse race.

Ainsworth, played with great aplomb by Julian Harries, gets some lovely lines. Accused of fabrication, he answers, “I don’t lie, I enrich.” The cast of five portray a whole range of characters and animals – and they all play musical instruments so that often, with a line-up of accordion, banjo, violin, guitar and mandolin, there’s a full-scale folk band stomping on stage.

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Turpin is basically a nasty piece of work and Jack Lord gets right into character as he is chased relentlessly, excitingly through the whole second half. Loren O’Dair is his courageous talking horse and her song Bonny Black Bess is a delight.

Richard Pepper as Thomas Kyll and Morgan Philpott’s as Richard Bayes are also strong and, on a simple scaffolded, trap-doored set, the five literally swing into a score of colourful characters with tremendous ease and effect and Pat Whymark’s songs and ballads of romance, life and death give the show a lovely lyrical dramatic drive, with The Game of High Toby (highway robbery) especially good.

David Henshall.