How Jardine steals the show in new Ashes play: Robin Hutchison

By the time The Scotch Express eased into platform four of Nottingham Station more than 20,000 people had crammed into its red brick booking hall.

Many had sought refuge from the swaying crowd on window ledges, or were hanging off lamp posts and tottering precariously on the roofs of waiting taxis.

The little man they were waiting for had been expecting a handful of friends and family to turn up, as he reached above his head to retrieve his trilby.

But as eager hands almost ripped his carriage door from its hinges, it finally struck Harold Larwood what impact he’d had on the Bodyline series in Australia in 1932-33.

A new play chronicling the events of that series, which became the most controversial in the sport’s history, is currently running at Nottingham Playhouse.

Capacity now restricts numbers viewing writer Michael Pinchbeck’s interpretation of events. Yet those in attendance are as eager as ever to welcome the re-return of their prodigal son.

Among the crowd on the night I attended was Molly Shentall, the daughter of Larwood’s partner in crime Bill Voce. Only she knows if local actors Daniel Hoffman-Gill and Karl Haynes have been faithful to her father and Larwood respectively.

But their portrayal of two of England’s best bowlers, forged in the furnace of the Nottinghamshire coalfield, imbues the production with a wonderful sense of place.

Conspicuous by his absence from the play is their nemesis Sir Donald Bradman, for whom the controversial tactics were almost exclusively devised. Yet the brilliance of his batting is lent an added air of mystique by the knowledge that the legend awaits in the wings.

The only Australian of note to feature is former captain Jack Fingleton, played by Damien Warren-Smith, whose later move into journalism is reprised in his role as the play’s narrator.

Framed around the five increasingly bitter telegrams exchanged between the MCC and the Australian Cricket Board, The Ashes begins with an elderly Larwood and Voce being introduced to the crowd before the Centenary Test at Melbourne in 1977.

Their reception, helped by a playful Voce handing Larwood his jacket and pretending to mark out his run-up, was stark contrast to the one they received at the time.

And before they can be lulled by the healing hands of history, the audience is thrust back to the time when the dastardly plan was first hatched.

We see the heroes in their native Nottinghamshire receiving their call-up for the tour and then being whisked away to London to receive their instructions.

Artistic Director Giles Croft uses an over-head camera beamed onto a screen behind the actors to portray their infamous meeting with England captain Douglas Jardine at the Piccadilly Grill Rooms.

Jardine shows the bowlers his leg theory on the table in front of them, using glasses of wine and pints of mild to signify the ring of fielders around the bat.

Bradman is pointedly portrayed as a jar of Coleman’s mustard, reinforcing Jardine’s belief that the game’s greatest player was ‘yellow’ against short-pitched bowling.

Jardine, played by the brilliantly-cast Jamie de Courcey, learns of his supposed weakness in a meeting with former Warwickshire and England skipper Frank Foster. His 66 wickets and use of a similar – yet less-controversially applied – battle plan is credited with winning the 1911 series Down Under.

Whilst conscious of portraying him as a pantomime villain, de Courcey’s ice-cold interpretation of the Old Wykehamist Jardine steals the show, highlighting the class fault-lines that ran through cricket and society at the time.

In contrast, warmth and humanity is added to the production by Sarah Churm, who plays Larwood’s wife Lois, patiently sitting at home watching the newsreel of the five Test matches at her local cinema.

The grainy footage, complete with the clipped tones of the commentator, skillfully avoids the need for any recreation of real-life action on the stage, with the inherent risk of it looking ‘hammy’.

The cast’s attention to detail, however, which saw them attend a coaching course with former Nottinghamshire batsman Darren Bicknell, is evidenced in them running in at imaginary net sessions before a match and practicing on a slip catch cradle.

Theatre-goers hoping to see ‘bodyline’ bowling being acted out in full on stage may be disappointed therefore, as this is the theatre not Trent Bridge. But as the play demonstrates, there is so much more to the story than the short-pitched stuff itself.

It is a tale of two countries, two teams and two classes, united and then bitterly divided in the pursuit of one goal: winning a cricket series.

Almost 80 years after its subject threatened friendly relations between England and Australia, the play, which runs until September 17, is well worth the wait.

Robin Hutchison writes for The Cricketer magazine

About Robin Hutchison

Robin Hutchison is a Midlands-based sports Journalist and PR consultant. He is a regular contributor to The Cricketer magazine and currently pens their monthly betting column. He also contributes articles to a number of national newspapers including The Sun, Daily Star, Sunday Mirror and Sunday Express and is the author of The Tinman: The Ted McMinn Story.
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2 Responses to How Jardine steals the show in new Ashes play: Robin Hutchison

  1. Mark Oswald says:

    Hello Robin,
    I was interested in your article and wondered
    if the play’s producers,had any plans
    to stage the play in Australia?
    Thanks again for your article!

    Mark Oswald.

    • Robin Hutchison says:

      Hi Mark,

      Apologies for the delay in my response. There is talk about the play moving to London in the first instance, given its success in Nottingham. But I’m not aware of any plans to take it Down Under as yet. The guys at Nottingham Playhouse might have a better idea.