Thomas Tallis

This review of Thomas Tallis first appeared in Offbeat News, our bi-monthly newsletter.

What a triumph this remarkable production proved to be! As the house lights dimmed and we settled in our seats, an arresting silence enveloped the Little Theatre. Suddenly, we had been transported back in time through four centuries and found ourselves within the towering walls of Waltham Abbey.

Then out of the pervasive gloom appeared the commanding figure of Thomas Tallis who spoke passionately on the power of music to transform us and bring us closer to our Creator. Imaginative lighting and the sound of plainsong intensified this recreation of the past and prepared us for the deeply disturbing experience we were about to encounter.

The brutal nature of the times was brilliantly signalled in the first scene when an Italian singer whose performance had apparently pleased the king was forced to drink from a poisoned chalice. The palpable tension of the scene was made even more telling by Henry's casual attitude immediately after the deed.

To survive in high office through the reigns of four Tudor monarchs with very different sympathies during the cataclysmic events of the Reformation has inevitably raised questions of Tallis' personal integrity. Indeed the playwright highlights them by the introduction of Peter (Harry Harding), the priest, a fictitious friend of Thomas, whose story forms a counterpoint to the main theme.

Amid the drama, Thomas really speaks to us through the medium of his glorious music and the singers are to be congratulated not only for the quality of their unaccompanied singing but on the sensitive and unobtrusive manner with which they melded into the dramatic action.

The challenge for Paul Morton as Thomas was to reveal his inner turmoil as he observes the world he has loved collapse around him and yet manages to accommodate himself to it. In this production, Thomas' anguished but dignified response to events certainly gained our sympathy although he remained an enigmatic character to the end.

One of the more unforgettable moments early in the production was the reaction of Peter the priest to Thomas' acceptance of preferment from the king who was just about to destroy the abbey. The swaggering entry of the king's commissioner (Christopher Wallace) had set up this crucial moment most effectively and our hearts surely went out to this man of principle and courageous conviction. To see this same man so swiftly afterwards as a pedlar selling holy relics was one of a number of real shocks that characterised this production.

Harry Harding's accomplished interpretation of Peter gave us a convincingly flawed character, although he ultimately accepted martyrdom. As the play reached its terrible climax, we could at least read him rather more easily than Thomas.

Other highlights of the evening for me were the remarkably assured performance by Martyn Leonard as the juvenile but totally heartless Edward VI [played on other nights by William Barnes and Owen Freeman Howell] and the vitriolic ravings of Mrs Prest (Jan Palmer Sayer) a truly frightening depiction of fanatical religious fervour.

However, this was very much a company performance where every role contributed to the sense of period and total impact of a compelling drama. I rather wished that Jessica Swale had given us a little more from Tallis at the conclusion to balance the opening monologue but that is, of course, no criticism of this CoPs production.

After the applause at the end, silence once again descended on the theatre before we began to collect our coats and our thoughts. This testified to the power of a performance that gave us plenty to think about as we made our ways back into the twenty-first century and we must thank Hannah Leonard for her choice of play and firm direction of such a worthwhile production.

Reviewed by Cliff Greely, who directed for CoPs in the 1970s and taught English, Drama and Public Speaking in local schools

Thomas Tallis was written by Jessica Swale and directed by Hannah Leonard. The production was staged at The Little Theatre in 2019.