Oct 26 2018 | By More

★★★★☆    Furious energy

Bedlam Theatre: Wed 24–Sat 27 Oct 2018
Review by Hugh Simpson

The EUTC’s production of Jez Butterworth’s celebrated Jerusalem at the Bedlam has so much drive and chutzpah that it is an undoubted success.

The story of Johnny “Rooster” Byron, who dispenses both tall tales and narcotics to an army of eager young acolytes from his caravan in a wood in deepest Wiltshire, was a huge hit both in the West End in 2009 and on Broadway. This was not least because of the performance of Mark Rylance, whose winning of awards in both countries helped to consolidate his reputation.

Paddy Echlin (Johnny Rooster Byron) and Rufus Love (Ginger) Pic Callum Pope

Paddy Echlin (Johnny Rooster Byron) and Rufus Love (Ginger) Pic: Callum Pope

The play has since taken on semi-legendary status, with Rooster’s preparations to face down of his enemies to the background of a St George’s Day fair apparently saying important things about England in the 21st century. This is a doubtful claim at best; while there are some interesting things in it about the relationship between the English, their history and their heritage, it ultimately is rather unfocused.

It does not need a genius to see that there are plenty of people in England who have constructed stories around their local and national identities that owe everything to myth, self-aggrandisement and unthinking intolerance, and nothing to reality. Because this happens everywhere. Even (or especially) in Scotland – but that’s another story.

What is undeniable is how much disreputable energy and compulsive momentum the play has. Despite featuring a large cast, it is driven by its central character to such an extent that it needs a hugely charismatic performance.

Luckily Paddy Echlin is more than capable, with his portrayal of Johnny at once larger than life yet strangely intimate. The character comes across as a hugely complex figure – a liar, a waster, a cheat and a moral corrupter of youth, yet still a righteous rebel, a defender of individualism and a ‘capital R’ Romantic anti-hero (the name Byron is surely more than coincidence).

not a little stardust

Echlin unsurprisingly struggles to quite sustain his intensity over three hours, but this is a performance of great skill, considerable humanity and not a little stardust.

Rufus Love (Ginger) Pic Callum Pope

Rufus Love (Ginger). Pic: Callum Pope

He is given excellent support by Rufus Love as Ginger, Johnny’s ageing wannabe DJ sidekick. Love has enviable command of both physical and verbal comedy, with perfect timing and considerable reserves of pathos.

The rest of the ensemble are not quite on the same level; despite its reputation, this is a baggy play with several dispensable characters. There is also a definite problem in having a cast of similar ages; the contrast between the middle-aged Rooster and his associates is never going to be as marked as it should be, and the ‘Pied Piper’ element to his story is diminished as a result.

However, everyone at least makes a good attempt, and Patrick Beddow’s thoroughly assured direction means that it is never tentative, and never drags. The large stretches with a crowd around the wonderfully realised set are deftly handled. The odd moments of intrusive rhubarbing, or where someone seems less sure what to do, only reinforce that for the rest of the time there is considerable (and thoroughly justified) confidence on display. Mention must also be made of a thoroughly cohesive set of accents.

Tom Hindle and Dominic Sorrell, as two of Johnny’s hangers-on, offer considerable fresh-faced comic value. Katrina Johnstone and Holly Hollis, as their female counterparts, have underwritten roles to deal with but are very believable. Amelia Chinnock-Schumann’s teenage runaway has a suitably brittle quality.


There is not always the same level of credibility with those playing older roles. Callum Pope’s Professor has some expert timing, but never quite nails the air of befuddled elderly heartbreak. Similarly, Thomas Noble’s Wesley is very funny, but cannot ever quite convince as the disappointed middle-aged publican. Rob Younger’s Troy nearly gets to the black heart of Johnny’s nemesis, but is not quite nasty enough.

Thomas Noble (Wesley) Pic Callum Pope

Thomas Noble (Wesley). Pic: Callum Pope

No such problems with Aimee Vincent, whose portrayal of Johnny’s estranged young son Marky is spot on. Sasha Briggs, meanwhile, gives his mother Dawn a world-weary combination of hope and despair that is very effective.

Scarlett Stitt and Harry Solomons are on a hiding to nothing as the embodiments of the forces of darkness (Kennet and Avon Council) but manage to give their characters a semblance of humanity.

In the end the play comes across as intriguing rather than the piece of resonant political theatre, or profound state-of-the-nation piece, that many have claimed. However, that is the fault of over-eager critics rather than Butterworth – and it certainly is nothing to do with those whose staging of it here shows commendable ambition.

There must be a couple of caveats. This is definitely an adult experience – the warnings about content are undoubtedly required, Not so much the drug-taking, which is very ho-hum, or the violence, which occurs offstage (and whose visible results are one of the things done less well here). However, there are frequent uses of misogynistic and downright racist language that might give considerable offence to some.

However, the overriding effect is a positive one, thanks to some first-rate direction and a central performance worth going a long way to see.

Running time 2 hours 50 minutes including one 20 minute interval and one 5 minute interval
Bedlam Theatre, 11b Bristo Place, EH1 1EZ
Wednesday 24– Saturday 27 October 2018
Daily at 7.30 pm.



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