Review: Progress by Joanna Carrick, Red Rose Chain, The Avenue Theatre, Ipswich, until February 28

The cast of the Red Rose Chain production of Progress at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich.L-R David R

The cast of the Red Rose Chain production of Progress at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich.L-R David Redgrave, Elsie Bennett, Daniel Abbott,Robert Jackson,Lucy Telleck, Tom McCarron. - Credit: Archant

Royalty opened the new Avenue theatre in Ipswich. Elizabeth I witnessed a new play by writer-director Jo Carrick about the Royal Progress made to Ipswich in 1561.

Elizabeth I (Elsie Bennett) and Robert Dudley (Daniel Abbott) in the Red Rose Chain production 'Prog

Elizabeth I (Elsie Bennett) and Robert Dudley (Daniel Abbott) in the Red Rose Chain production 'Progress' which opens the new Avenue theatre. - Credit: Archant

Royalty opened the new Avenue theatre in Ipswich. Elizabeth I, in the form of actress Elsie Bennett, witnessed a new play by writer-director Jo Carrick about the Royal Progress made to Ipswich in 1561.

It’s clear in Jo’s fast-moving historical drama that far more happened on royal visits way back then – probably because they stayed longer. Jo Carrick’s research has unearthed the fact that during Elizabeth’s nine-day stay in Ipswich they discovered the fact that her lady-in-waiting Lady Catherine Grey, sister to the recently executed Lady Jane Grey, was not only secretly married but also with child.

This unpardonable sin was compounded by the fact that she made her way to the bed-chamber of Elizabeth’s supposed lover, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in order to confess all. Placing him in danger of being presumed to be the baby’s father.

Elizabeth is not happy and warns Dudley with a pointedly sharp: “Have nothing more to do with her. She is a strumpet.”


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Contrasting the emotional drama at Christchurch Mansion, where Elizabeth’s party were staying, Jo has cleverly lands the audience in the middle of rehearsals for a play to be performed for the Royal party. The actors are all local tradesmen and bear more than a passing resemblance to the rude mechanicals to be found in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Indeed there is circumstantial evidence that perhaps stories of their enthusiastic performance may have inspired the Bard to include them in his comedy. However, Jo uses them for more than comic relief. These Ipswich people are the survivors of Bloody Mary’s ruthless persecution of the Protestant religion and they can remember the nine Ipswich martyrs being burned at the stake. Burdened with survivor guilt, they seek vengeance from those who helped with the executions.

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Writing historical drama is not easy but Jo Carrick mixes fact with fiction with a light touch. Nothing is laboured. Nothing screams: ‘This is important.’ Jo remembers, both in her writing and in her direction, that she is staging a play not delivering a lecture. The characters are bright and believable and the dialogue is refreshingly free of cod old English or mock Shakespeare. The play is much more direct and more engaging as a result.

The play is also well cast. Daniel Abbott, Elsie Bennett, Robert Jackson, Tom McCarron, David Redgrave and Lucy Telleck all play two characters apiece and their portrayals are wonderfully distinct. Also everyone deserves high praise for the authentic Ipswich accent which proudly on display.

The simple set – a large wooden kitchen table, a trestle and a rocking chair, made from Suffolk oak – is simple and effect. It sets the place and time nicely without cluttering up the stage which is surround on three sides by the audience. The ritualised dressing of the characters, particularly Elizabeth, is a nice touch, speedily done by taking items of clothing from a hanging washing line.

Progress is a wonderful play and it’s also a wonderful piece of forgotten Ipswich history and it’s fitting that it should open a new studio theatre which will be largely dedicated to both education and community work.

Andrew Clarke

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