Moonfleet, Salisbury Playhouse

SALISBURY Playhouse’s artistic director Gareth Machin has been working on his adaptation of J Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet for more than three years, making changes even up to the opening night on 19th April.

The resulting show, with its music by Russell Hepplewhite, is a triumph. Perhaps it is particularly effective for an audience familiar with the Dorset coast and its tales of smugglers and shipwrecks, but this new musical, which runs in Salisbury to 5th May, proves just how powerful and atmospheric a small cast of fine singers, a strong story and evocative tunes can be.

Set in the village of Moonfleet (near Weymouth) between  1757 and 1760, it is the story of John Trenchard, an orphan boy with a taste for adventure and a determination to make life better for his friends and fellow villagers.  He is fascinated by the stories of Black­beard, the legendary Bristol­ian pirate who plied his trade off the eastern seaboard of America.

Did the notorious buccaneer make landfall at the Dorset Fleet? Did he leave a treasure map in caves below Moonfleet?

Whatever the truth of the story, many villagers believed it. Wailing groans from the church crypt were  attributed to the souls of those lost at sea, or to Edward Teach himself.

When the cruel magistrate ordered the shooting of a group of smugglers struggling for footholds on the stony fleet, and a young boy died, it was time for John to act. Thrown out by his devout aunt and taken in by the local publican, he determined to test Blackbeard’s riddle …

With the sound of sea pulling the tide over the pebbles and the mariners to their deaths, the risks were great. Falkner’s story has enraptured generations since its publication in 1898.

The adventurous Salisbury Play­house production has gathered an exceptional cast of singing actors, who, with movement director Kate Flatt, re-create the danger, camaraderie and thrills of the Moonfleet story.

The alteration of John’s guardian from the male Elzevir of the book to the female Isabelle gives a powerful role to Rebecca Lock.  Poole-raised music theatre star Earl Carpenter brings his celebrated skills to the role of Maskew the magistrate, and the corrupt Carris­brook turnkey.

Ryan Heenan and Ruth Betteridge are the young and hesitant lovers, John Trenchard and Grace Maskew.  Ashley Mercer is a dramatic ghostly Blackbeard, his marvellous voice sending out sad warnings to his protege.

Simon Butteriss, well known from his Iford Festival Opera della Luna roles and many other appearances, has the comedy moments, as the avidly supportive Rev Glennie, the drunken bailiff and the spectacular Dutch diamond merchant Aldo­brand. And Susannah van den Berg and Dan Smith have the comic duo roles of Mrs Gadd and Mr Hinks.

Time will tell if the music propels this version onto stages around the country and the wider world, but Salisbury audiences should take the chance of seeing this terrific adaptation of a favourite, local, book.


Photographs by The Other Richard

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