Twenty-five years ago on June 1, the Peace Convoy, made up of hundreds of new-age travellers, was on its way to the 14th free festival at Stonehenge, Wilstshire, when it was met with violent action from police at a road-blockage set to determine an exclusion zone that had been declared four miles around the English Heritage site. Many convoy vehicles escaped through a hedge into a nearby field, and after a stand-off of several hours, riot police entered the field on foot.
What followed was described by eyewitness and ITN reporter Kin Sabido as: “Some of the most brutal police treatment of people that I’ve witnessed in my entire career as a journalist. ”
Convoy vehicles were destroyed with the occupants still hiding within, including pregnant women, were dragged down caravan steps by their hair. Nick Davies reported for the Observer: “There was glass breaking, people screaming, black smoke towering out of burning caravans and everywhere there seemed to be people being bashed and flattened and pulled by the hair. Men, women and children were led away, shivering, swearing, crying, bleeding, leaving their homes in pieces.”
Now, the events of that extraordinary day have been brought back into public consciousness in a new play by Bristol-based playwright Shaun McCarthy. Beanfield is a powerful, emotional new production at Exeter’s Bike Shed Theatre, reliving the Battle of the Beanfield through the eyes of travellers and police alike.
It begins with a Shakespearean-style prologue from convoy member and new-age idealist Steamer, played by Ben Crispin, who delivers each line with conviction, generating a powerful empathy with his portrayal of a young man disillusioned by a harsh childhood, seeking a Utopia, which is about to be shattered irrevocably.
Joining him on the road is Annie, a young woman who differs from many other members of the procession by coming from a wealthy, middle-class background. Constantly teased for being ‘posh’, her unstable convictions dissolve as events unfold. Katie Villa gives an authentic performance that will resonate with anyone torn between two worlds, unable to truly belong to either, and feels lost and drifting in searching for their reason for living.
Another genuinely responsive character is that of chicken farm hand Diane, whom Georgie Rennolds plays with an engaging sense of lovable whimsy, as a young girl drawn into the world and politics of the convoy.
Eli Thorne and Ben Simpson both give solid, versatile performances as both fellow travellers and their villainous police-force counterparts, with a particularly impressive speech delivered with blazing fervour by Thorne on the eve of the battle. Both Rennolds and Villa also slip into state-approved alter-egos as the police or members of English Heritage without a murmur, helped along by an inventive and mobile set designed by Phil Wyatt, depicting everything from a psychedelic mini-bus to a domestic scene in Birmingham with ease. Occasionally the on-set scene changes were a little clunky, making it hard to hear what a character was saying as a van interior was dismantled around them, but overall changes were made with minimum fuss.
Beanfield has been directed by David Lockwood of Particular Theatre Company with skillful precision and impressive vision. From the subtle lighting by Rachel Duthie to the live music from Ben Goldstone, each aspect of Beanfield’s production has been thought out and implemented with a comprehensive understanding of what makes good theatre alongside McCarthy’s script.
I have not been moved to give a standing ovation since seeing Tosca at the Prague State Opera, but as the lights dimmed on the final scene myself and many other audience members leapt to our feet whistling, cheering and stamping at what is certainly the most accomplished and successful production that the Bike Shed, and possibly, Exeter, has seen so far this year.
Beanfield runs at the Bike Shed Theatre until the 19th June. For more information go the Exeter’s Bike Shed Theatre site.