Charlie Peace: His Amazing Life and Astounding Legend, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. On until Saturday November 18. Box office: 024 7655 3055.
Charlie Peace (Peter Duncan) is an attractive character chock full of contradictions and complexities - and this piece as a whole is no different.
It’s ostensibly a ‘musical melodrama’, but the ever-shifting scenery and illusory backdrops that the Belgrade has perfected also make it an innovative masterpiece. Norman Pace (half of Hale and Pace) plays the showman-cum-narrator, the thread that binds the piece together. Without lifting more than a curtain, we travel from Armley Jail in Leeds to Darnall in Sheffield, Narrow Marsh in Nottingham to Peckham in London and the scene shifts from jail to church to front room, from shops where the light-fingered, murdering Peace steals pretty things for his women.
Even a villain and a vagabond, particularly one who plays the violin, needs redeeming qualities and, in Peter Duncan’s hands, Charlie Peace’s womanising is genuine and heartfelt, his ménage-a-trois in Peckham in order to keep his two women safe and provided for. Wife Hannah (Mia Soteriou) and the Nottingham Nightingale Sue (Bridie Higson) vie for his attention, and policemen (Nicolas Goode, Charlie de Bromhead, Alex Mugnaioni, Philip Rham – who also make up most of the masterly musical ensemble) up and down the land are after him too.
Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Well, it’s both – the hangman’s noose ends the show, but his last words – a diatribe against the evils of misused power – grease the rope. If Nottingham needs a new hero, well, Robin Hood had better watch his back. This is hugely enjoyable and the original songs add so much. A real treat.