Lies On Their Lips - The Abingdon Murders

by Joel Kaye and Gwilym Scourfield
Based on the book 'The Abingdon Waterturnpike Murder'
by Mark Davies

Performed at the Unicorn Theatre 31st March to 4th April 2009

'I do love a good hanging!' cackled cheery Clara Basden (Lynne Smith), in this world premiere of Lies on their Lips written by Joel Kaye and Gwilym Scourfield for the Abingdon Drama Club. They're not a group afraid of intense plays, or a bit of historical research, and this dramatisation brings to life a slice of local history and a cast of real characters who have been dead for nearly 200 years.

The Abingdon Turnpike Murders revolve around the brutal bludgeoning of a well endowed draper on his return from the Michaelmas Fair, right next to the water turnpike and attended by an unclear number of assailants, probably led by unremittingly bad Charles Shury (Adam Blake), horse thief, publican of ill repute and leader astray of his band of neer-do-wells.

It is around this pivotal point that the plot hangs throughout the performance. In the comfortable and intimate setting of the Unicorn Theatre, it is hard to imagine how one would stage a brutal murder, three realistic hangings and arrange for a set that seamlessly shifts between market place, public house and court room. But thanks to some inventive direction by Eileen Bagshaw and efficient prop switching by the cast, this was well pulled of by the Abingdon Drama Club. Silhouettes, soliloquies and song helped to tell the story, explaining the plot and motives while keeping back tantalising details. Alex Codling shone as Anne Gilkes, bringing a particularly human dimension to the grisly tale and its human consequences.

It was interesting to note the popularity of the performance amongst the local population - tickets sold out well in advance, and the audience was clearly enthralled not only by the production, but also the underlying subject matter which evidently still raises the pulse and quickens the senses of the 4th generation since the dastardly deed took place. At one point, during the initial hanging of the ring leader and his rambunctiously course first mate, John Castle (Tristan Kear), the intense murmuring of the crowd on-stage spread into the assembled audience, all exchanging views on whether the men were guilty.

An enthusiastic cast was ably supported by ingenious props (including an excellent inflatable piglet carried by a swine maiden) and ghostly soundtrack. Top marks also to the Morris Dancing troupe who opened and closed the performance.

So who did commit the Murders, and was Giles Covington (John Hawkins) an innocent man hanged brutally by an over-zealous JP (Malcolm Ross) for a crime in which he had no part? An interesting observation of early miscarriages of justice, this dramatisation of local historian Mark Davies' book is all the more poignant for being performed in a building the characters would have known well and by the descendents of those very townsfolk.

Jen and Bloke - 07/04/09 - Daily Info

NODA Review

It was my pleasure to accept ADC’s invitation to review the ‘World Premiere’ of this show which was also part of the 2009 Abingdon Arts Festival.

It was fascinating to read in the programme about the Abingdon Murders and how the play evolved. I’m sure it has created a lot of interest in the town in recent months, and I am sure much discussion will follow in the weeks to come among those who was the production as to whether justice was done at the end of the play. I am sure the jury will be out for some considerable time!

The set designed by Malcolm Ross was very effective on the small stage covering all that was required of such a show. It was well constructed by his team – and the painting fitted the bill perfectly.

The lighting designed by Michael Ward and operated by Deborah Emmett was very effective creating the atmosphere required for the show. I liked the silhouette of the window, or wrought iron gate, and the ‘required spot’ which highlighted the individual characters as they came forward centre-stage to deliver their lines. It gave the play that important extra dimension, as did the screen and the shadows for the ‘murder’ which gave greater impact to the plot.

Scenery changes and props: the ‘crew’ and actors were well disciplined in all that they did. Everyone knew exactly which prop was required and it was all executed in a very quiet, efficient manner. I was impressed!

All entrances and exits worked well with no problems when the ‘crowd’ and the Morris Men came on and off. The Hanging Scene was powerful and moving. I liked the remark from one of the crowd ‘I’ll have his boots when he’s dead’! (Part of the script?)

The Cast: this was a well-balanced cast, no weak links, with a wealth of talent from the younger to the older generations; a balanced mix that would be the envy of many groups. Many of the cast ‘doubled up’ in many parts and they were very convincing in whichever role they played. This was good acting. Even the smallest cameo characters were so believable – and nearly stole the show. Time and space do not allow me to comment on each member of the cast – and for that I apologise – but some of the cast had to convey the story. To this end, I will mention a few:

Charles Shury played by Adam Blake, Giles Covington by John Hawkins, John Castle by Tristan Kear and Richard Kilby by Paul Mann all provided something special to the story. They showed great presence, in some cases their faces never stopped working. They may have been menacing or sympathetic or scheming, etc, but always acting. Well done.

Anne Gilkes played by Alex Codling: I was impressed with this performance, and by the end of the show she had the sympathy of the audience. You could sense that they were sorry for her. Her body posture showed love, fear, sorrow and despair, and her last scene held the audience enthralled. Her accent was well sustained, even when she was singing her song. Congratulations.

Sir Christopher Willoughby and Martha Willoughby, played by Malcolm Ross and Geraldine McTier respectively, were both dignified, speaking with confidence and authority. They stood erect, with control and good, clear diction.

Clara Basden and Susannah Crawford, played by Lynne Smith and Annie Stephenson, showed their experience and stage craft, sustained their country accents and certainly gave their all as ‘crowd rousers’.

It was a joy to experience Mr Hemmings Traditional Abingdon Morris Dancers, a family that has performed for many generations. Long may it survive!

Costumes were organised by Jane Cadogan. A good selection for rich and poor, all fitting well and in period. The white cotton bonnets looked crisp and fresh. Were they all from the club’s own wardrobe?

Hair and make-up by Alex Codling and Mary Hichens: from where I sat everything seemed fine.

Programme was printed on good quality paper and had all the essential information – and more.

It was an interesting evening’s entertainment. I enjoyed the show – and the hospitality shown to me during the interval.

Gareth Jeremy - National Operatic & Dramatic Association (NODA)


Flare Path
Wed 4th - Sat 7th July
Unicorn Theatre


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Tues 17th April
The Clubhouse