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Flames of Injustice, WAOS

Guest Reviewer: Christine Davidson

I can remember a conversation I had with Stewart Adkins over four years ago, when he told me of his dream to produce a brand new musical, which would be performed for the celebration of their one hundred year anniversary.

He had a story to tell, which would involve the local community, a story of the fires of Witham in 1828, So to attempt this awesome feat he would have to find an incredibly creative writer & lyricist. This he did, as being a strong supporter of NODA; he managed to persuade Sarah Osborne to write for WAOS.

Sarah Osborne is one of the most creative, clever, energetic women that I have had the pleasure to meet and be taught by. To be given this gem of a project must have made her feel incredibly fulfilled as I know she always puts one hundred per cent into everything she does.

The story is one that sounds more like fiction than fact but fact it was. During a night of celebration on Bonfire night, 1828, arson attacks occurred at local farms. Such was the concerns amongst the landed gentry that they asked local magistrate, William Wright Luard to be in charge of the investigation. Finally they charged a young boy of sixteen, James Cook. Although he was later found to be completely innocent, because of peoples prejudices a miscarriage of justice occurred and he was hanged for the crime. Later it was found that his friend, bad boy, Edmund Potto was responsible, found guilty and subsequently transported to Australia for life.

This drama musical had all the makings of a great and riveting show. Opening the show, with the rousing number ‘Witham’s Ablaze’; here was a huge company of over thirty people in colourful Victorian costume. With so many on stage there was very little room to move but the clever choreography by Shelly Fenn & Gemma Gray gave them all movements which meant it worked. I must admit there were times during the show when I wished for a little more action as a lot of the show was fairly static but the two dance numbers and the crazy police scenes did help to break this up. Maybe the Charlie Chaplin police scenes could have been pulled as it did take away from the mood of the show but I’m sure the audience enjoyed it. I’m just not sure that they were needed but that is just my view.

To mention everyone in this show would take forever so I will mention the actors for me who stood out.

Emma Loring and Justine Ephgrave played sisters Dorcas Cooke and Harriet Hayles. Dorcas had married for love and with her children was now destitute whilst Harriet had married for comfort and was childless but comfortably settled. Both widows supported one another. The singing from both these ladies was sublime. Not only did they look like sisters, their characterisation of the roles was super with Dorcas the quiet loving mother and Harriet spiky, outspoken and fiercely protective of her sister. Well done ladies for great performances.

Another actress that stood out was Meg Abbott as Betty Goodwin. Betty was an aspiring journalist apprenticed to Franklyn Waters (Michael Mundell-Poole) who wrote for the local newspaper. I was surprised to learn that women at that time were allowed to do such male dominated jobs and obviously this was the case as she was not listened to at all and made to be subservient to the landed gentry of the town. Even when she had proof that James was with her, they did not listen. Her singing voice was again beautiful and it was only when she was talking with Michael, at the beginning of the show did I have difficulty in hearing her over the orchestra. At this point mics should have been raised so we could hear. Michael, this time in a straight acting role, showing his acting prowess, was a good foil for Meg and they made an excellent team.

Danni Carr as James Cooke is always an actor worth watching. I have seen him grow up from his days at KYDS and his work in every show he does is always one hundred per cent. His characterisation of the role with his clear singing, plus the sadness he emoted towards the end before he was hung meant we were totally on the side of James. Well done Danni.

Stewart Adkins is another actor that has total stage presence. With a wonderful voice he projects so well I am sure he really does not need a mic! Each time he came on as Peter Du Cane 3rd you really wanted to boo and hiss. Du Cane was an embittered man who was left by his intended just weeks before the wedding and has never been the same since. He suggests to his fellow landowners and the magistrate that they should interview the young men in the town and is one of the people blamed at the end, for James’s death.

Just one thing that I did not really understand was when Stewart was singing ‘The Bitter Pill’ on the stairs stage right, James Cooke who was by this time dead came on and danced with a young girl during the song. I was not really sure why? I did ask a few people around me at the end and they said the same thing so just wondered if it was supposed to be the young Peter who had lost his love? If so why was Danni used in this scene? Surely one of the other men could have done this, as it was just a little confusing.

Tim Clarke as the pompous, prejudiced magistrate William Wright Luard, characterised his role well. Whilst not listening to any of the proof laid before him, considered that James Cooke was guilty and should appear before the local law courts for trial, where James was convicted and later sentenced to death. In the end the magistrate was full of remorse and asked for forgiveness from Dorcas which subsequently, was given.

Ben Rolph as Will Cooke, the younger brother of James, did well in the role but sometimes I really couldn’t hear what he was singing or saying. Will Hackett as Edmund Potto had the smaller role and really should have been given more as he is such an excellent singer and needs to be given larger role next time. I loved his song ‘Across the Horizon.’

Amy Pryce as Sarah Hutley the teacher who believes in James and tries to prove his innocence again has a crystal clear voice and was very convincing. Witham obviously have such a fantastic choice of female singers and it was good to see her back on stage after her success as best actress in their production of ‘Made in Dagenham’.

Well done to the children Grace Morris and Darcy Ephgrave who behaved impeccably and silently danced off each time moving props so easily that you forgot they were actually doing it. Also young Cleo Gunn as Robert Ling/Lawyer/Constable never stopped smiling and was a ray of sunshine, despite the modern glasses.

Costumes were on the whole well thought out. Knowing how hard it is now to acquire the right period, when most costume rental firms have gone, it is a growing problem, so I do understand how trying to find so many must have been a headache for the wardrobe mistress.

Set was simple and cleverly used with props brought on by the cast. With stairs stage right, leading up to the walkway where both James and Edmund walked off to their fates and where Justice Lawley (Tim Sheppard) delivered his verdict. This really did give the actors as much room as they could find with such a large cast to cater for.

Well done to the whole cast who all worked tirelessly and with joy during the show. This really must have been such hard work but looking at the filled seats, the fantastic publicity really paid off. They even got onto the TV local evening news which is a real coup for them. The programme also was a sheer delight to read and look at.

Lighting and sound were good however I did feel at times that the sound balance lost it way a trifle and occasionally, the moving LED heads were slow in reacting to actors movements, leaving some shadow areas. However that is nit-picking!

Director Rhianna Howard obviously had her work cut out but with Musical Director Jessie Tabor they gave us a great evening’s entertainment. Well done also to Franky Garland who composed the music and Phil Toms the Orchestrator who with five other musicians gave us the melodic music during the show.

The story of James Cooke has now been brought to the attention of us all. Never having heard of it before, I am still really in awe on how Witham Amateur Operatic Society had the hindsight to produce this marvellous show.

Congratulations to all!

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