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The Death of Chatterton
Published on Sunday, 12 August 2012
4

4 stars

Pleasance Courtyard (venue website)
Theatre
3-5 Aug, 2:00pm-3:30pm; 6-18 Aug, 12:25pm-1:55pm
Reviewed by Jane Bristow

 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.
 Free and unticketed. No pre-booking required.

It may be called The Death of Chatterton, but this is not any old historical melodrama. In fact, as I was going to my seat, I was surprised to see that it was billed as ‘a new comedy’ on the poster. That pretty much set the tone of the play – dark but funny.  Unless you’re an English student it’s very possible you haven’t heard of the eighteenth-century poet Thomas Chatterton, but all you really need to know is he’s the ultimate penniless poet who died a young, tragic death.

It’s not just a simple telling of Chatteron’s life – or death – because glimpses of his story are interwoven with the attempts of a twentieth-first century American student, Tom, to research details of his story. Tom’s interest is sparked by a curator at the Tate Gallery showing him the nineteenth-century painting of the same name. This provides a good premise for unravelling the past, and makes for a consistently interesting production.

There are lots of rapid scene changes which flit between the centuries, all of which were done incredibly slickly. The dates and place names projected on to the set made it easier to work out what was going on, and allowed you to witness the increasing demise of Chatterton’s hopes starting from his suicide and working backwards.

The already-complicated format could have been left at this, but it finishes with an even more elaborate twist. This didn’t seem to particularly enrich the play and perhaps left it less moving than it could have been at the end. I also felt more interest in Chatterton’s problems than his modern day American counterpart’s, so I would have been happy if the play had spent less time in this century.

By the end, you may or may not buy the alternative history of Chatterton that is suggested, but you’ll be left impressed. Anyway, since the opening statement of the play states: ‘What you are about to see is based on true events...well kinda’, this is beside the point.  The frequently witty and thoroughly ambitious production by Young Pleasance brings to life the vibrancy of the eighteenth-century, with a magnificent set and cast including dandies, strumpets and Horace Walpole. It’s full of surprises and successfully treads the fine line between being irreverent and moving.

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