Who is the real Dick Turpin?

Dick Turpin — romantic rogue or a vicious merciless killer? Which view provides the correct image of the notorious highwayman? ANDREW CLARKE speaks to the creative team behind a new play which seeks to stand and deliver.

Stand and deliver! Your money or your life?

That was the traditional greeting which struck terror into the hearts of wealthy travellers on the roads on Britain during the 1700s. This was the stuff that filled endless Victorian romantic novels and made a legend of highwayman Dick Turpin.

This supposedly dashing mischief-maker is the subject of Daniel O'Brien's musical play Dick Turpin's Last Ride at The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, which asks the question: 'Was he really a misunderstood rogue or was he really a vicious killer?'

Director Abigail Anderson describes The Last Ride as the most challenging production she has yet tackled, mixing two or three different dramatic storylines with musical sequences from theatre composer Pat Whymark, humans playing animals and all flavoured with a tough contemporary edge.

'It's the most complex, multi-layered production I have directed for the Theatre Royal — and I have had some amazing challenges since I have been here. Cider With Rosie was an amazing concept to stage and this is even harder because it has so many different modes and moods.

'There are 16 songs which weave their way through the whole piece. At times it's like a folk gig with acting.'

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What drew her to the play was this strange relationship with highwaymen and Dick Turpin in particular. 'We have this need for folk heroes. Dick Turpin has become an alternative Robin Hood. Because highwaymen are seen as individuals and as rogues, they exist outside the system, and are often seen as a substitute for a Robin Hood figure. But there is very little evidence of any highwaymen stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

'I could only find one example and he was very politically motivated. It was at the time of the Civil War and he robbed Parliamentarians and donated the spoils to the Royalist cause. He was very much a one-off.'

An awful lot of research has gone into the play and as a result Abigail believes that they have got a pretty good idea of what the real Dick Turpin was like. But, as the play asks: Do we really want our dreams and romantic ideas shattered by harsh reality?

'We do know who Dick Turpin really was, certainly in terms of the things that he did. It is a matter of historical record and the manner of his death is well recorded. There is a transcript of his trial.

'There's the old adage by American film director John Ford who said: 'If the legend is better than the truth, print the legend.' What we are doing is looking at why that is so and asking is the legend really any better?

She said that the popular myth surrounding Dick Turpin was actually a Victorian invention created by novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, played on stage by Julian Harries.

Abigail said that during the course of the play, three men, who claim some knowledge of who Dick Turpin was, put their case before the audience: Ainsworth; the novelist Thomas Kyll, who took down the transcript of Turpin's trial; and Richard Bayes, who claimed to have known Turpin and wrote a 17th century book called The Genuine History of Richard Turpin.

Julian Harries said that Ainsworth basically took the name Dick Turpin, a real highwayman, and then pretty much invented his own character.

'His Dick Turpin is pretty much his own invention. He included a couple of things which actually happened like the ride to York and his execution but his appearance in the book Rookwood was just a sub-plot really.

'He's a gallant work of Victorian fiction. Even his horse Black Bess was Ainsworth's invention. There is nothing to suggest that he was particularly attached to his horse, in fact there is some speculation that he may have shot his horses.'

Actually Abigail is not convinced that Turpin even carried out a daring ride to York. Ainsworth may have attrib-uted the feat by another highwayman to Turpin in order to make his character even more dashing.

The 11 hour dash to York – 200 miles in 11 hours, certainly Dick Turpin didn't do that. It's highly unlikely that anyone did but if there is a candidate then it's likely to be Swift Nick Neverson who is supposed to have made the same journey 50 years before Turpin lived.

The play offers audiences a choice of portraits and leaves it to them to decide not only which one do they prefer but also which one do they think is true.

'It looks at the facts and it looks at the legend and sees where they converge and where the part. We take it as read that people may understand that there is a difference between the man and the legend. We present both side of the argument and ask the question: 'What is the value of fact? And what is the value of fiction? Dick Turpin's chroniclers actually take part in the play and have it out with one another.'

The play has a very contemporary feel to it. Abigail wanted it to feel very much like a modern play rather than a re-staging of a 17th century melodrama.

She said that talented cast have distinguished themselves not only as actors but also as singers and musicians. 'There's a mix of 18th century romantic songs about highwaymen, some traditional folk and then something a little more contemporary. It's a patchwork, rather like the play, and the two go very well together.'

n Dick Turpin's Last Ride is at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from November 1-5, �24-�13.50, �8.50 under-16s, 01284 769505, www.theatreroyal.org