In 1936, Clem Beckett, a young speedway rider from Manchester, travelled to Spain as a volunteer with the International Brigades. Joining the fight against Franco’s Nationalists, Clem and his friend Chris Caudwell tragically lost their lives in the Battle of Jarama.
That’s the end of the story. But Neil Gore’s Dare Devil Rides to Jarama begins much earlier, in 1929, introducing us to a charming, confident young man on the brink of an impressive sporting career. This passion leads him into politics, speaking out against the exploitation of young riders and joining the Manchester Young Communist League. As the years pass, Clem becomes increasingly involved in the fight against fascism at home in Britain – and when the Spanish Civil War breaks out in 1936, he doesn’t hesitate to leave behind his home, career and new wife to go and fight for his beliefs.
It’s a sobering tale, but told with an infectious charm and humour that means we come to really care for the characters. David Heywood oozes charisma as Clem, in a passionate performance that sees him mature before our eyes from cocky stunt rider, risking his life for thrills, to grim soldier taking on the dark forces of fascism. Alongside him, Neil Gore is a joy to watch as he fills all the other roles, from grumpy bosses to drunken Scotsmen, and – most importantly – the writer and intellectual Chris Caudwell. His unlikely friendship with Clem is the beating heart of Act 2, with each helping the other in moments of doubt, and the banter and political discourse between them is as entertaining as it is fascinating.
Neil Gore’s script brings together a delicious mixture of poetry, prose and music. The subject matter – with its talk of bikes, mechanics and politics – could easily have been a bit on the dry side, but the variety of styles and the engaging characters who tell the story constantly keep it lively and entertaining. The play is also, in places, very funny, with an audience participation element that sees us become part of the crowd roaring (and rattling…) Clem down the track, enthusiastically booing Oswald Mosley off the stage, and joining in with folk musician John Kirkpatrick’s melodic and catchy songs.
Though the set is intricate in design, with wooden panels that fold away to take us from the bike tracks of Manchester to the rainy streets of London (then undergoing a more dramatic transformation during the interval to shift the action to Spain), Louise Townsend’s direction has a simple charm that’s incredibly appealing. Hanging a sign that says Albacete means we’re in Albacete, and the cast of two do everything – acting, singing, operating the lights (stage and house) and even greeting and directing the audience at the door. This gives the production an intimate, slightly unpolished feel, and as a result the play’s message has far more impact than any fancy effects could provide.
Dare Devil Ride to Jarama was commissioned by the International Brigades Memorial Trust as a way to keep the memory alive of the volunteers who gave their lives fighting in Spain. But there’s something chillingly current about it as well; it’s difficult not to draw uncomfortable comparisons with the political situation across Europe – and beyond – right now. There might not be a need for us to physically go to war; it might not carry the same risk, but there’s still, and probably always be, a need for us to speak out and take a stand against fascism in all its forms. Neil Gore’s play honours the memory of Clem, Chris and all the volunteers of the International Brigades, by encouraging a new generation to follow their example. There’s no greater tribute than that.
Dare Devil Rides to Jarama is at the Bussey Building until 29th October then continuing on tour.