By Mark Bolsover
In a brilliantly written, cleverly staged and beautifully performed solo show, Dominic Allen of Belt Up Theatre’s 2012 Outland , tells his self-penned story of the life of Thomas Paine (1737-1809). Political activist, author and corsetmaker, Paine’s Common Sense is largely regarded to have been critical in laying the foundations of the American War of Independence, and his The Rights of Man is granted equal importance in supporting the French Revolution.
Allen’s choice of such a, during his own lifetime, controversial figure—Paine was also a rampant opponent of the Tories and help found the first Trade Union—is by no means arbitrary or incidental… —The Bridge That Tom Built abounds in knowing and timely historical parallels. Not the least of these are Paine’s view of the ‘deperatism’ of London, his disappointment in what he saw as the betrayal of the American Revolution in free market war-profiteering, the betrayal of the French Revolution in violence and Regicide and a perhaps knowing nod to the forthcoming Scottish Independence referendum. These parallel are by no means forced or laboured, however. The brilliance of Allen’s performance here lies in his portrayal of Paine’s character and passion, and the uncanny historical parallels are simply allowed to dawn on the audience without clumsy, obvious signposting.
The play’s biographical and historical sweep is incredibly broad, and though there is little time to dwell fully on details, the critical events and moments of Paine’s life are drawn into a character study with a tight, clean economy, unified by the overarching motif of the ‘bridge’: joining continents and key historical figures, as well as a simple metaphor for overcoming loss and adversity and the perennial possibility of political liberty. Allen’s writing is excellent. The dialogue is sharp, intelligent and witty. Thought the play centres on his portrayal of a rambunctious, passionate and yet, somehow, charmingly vulnerable and anxious Paine, Allen provides some excellent voice and character work in portraying (Paine’s perspective on) Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Robespierre and Louis XVI (amongst others). He makes great use of the limited space and simple set and props (improvising and ad libbing around these latter very well). The show has great pace and energy from the outset and Allen maintains the momentum well.
An excellent performance of brilliantly observed, intelligent and witty material, The Bridge That Tom Built is highly recommended.