Author, visionary, revolutionary: Thomas Paine’s life story is anything but conformist. He’s best known for his role in American independence, where some contemporaries rated him alongside George Washington in his importance to the path of history. But he had a bit part in the French Revolution too, facing the guillotine at the hands of the much-feared Robespierre, and his thoughts and writings had the power to foment rebellion even at home in England. You’ll learn all this and more from this energising solo show… and you’ll also have some laughs along the way.
From the full-on opening – which sees Paine jump onto an upturned barrel, and use it as a metaphorical soapbox – it’s clear that he is here to boss the room. And the same can be said of actor Dominic J Allen: he commands the space utterly from start to finish, bringing an urgent drive to the narrative and impact to his self-penned script. Directed by Joe Hufton, the performance is full of activity, but stays just the right side of frenetic – for all that the contents of Paine’s once-tidy writing desk inexorably end up scattered across the floor.
Despite that intensity, Allen’s manner feels easy-going, with occasional nods to the presence of an audience and the improvised style of the Fringe. In one glorious moment of anachronism, Paine refers to his noisy neighbours – who are, in fact, the cabaret act belting out a number in the venue next door. But no apology’s needed for the production values, which are superb throughout. A simple but versatile set ably reflects the stages of Paine’s journey, from Thetford in Norfolk to a prison in revolutionary France; and there are lots of little details as well, ensuring that the stage picture remains a rich one.
The bridge of the title is primarily a metaphorical one, as Paine’s complex life story crosses from country to country and continent to continent, linking together disparate communities of men and women who (to his mind) labour under the yoke of oppression. An especially vivid moment sees Paine witness a political satire on the streets of London; when he returns to the same spot a decade or more later, an eerie silence tells him that such dissent is now banned. But Allen’s script also finds room for some trenchant commentary on the American dream, coherently arguing that the seeds of modern malaise were sown before the ink on the Constitution was dry.
There’s a literal bridge in there as well – and while I appreciate that the symbolism is irresistible, perhaps the story would be better off without it. An hour-long biography has to be selective, and this detail of Paine’s life doesn’t really hook into the play’s predominant themes. But that’s the only digression in a generally sparklingly clear script, which addresses a smattering of political philosophy and a lot of complex history without ever degenerating into a lecture.
Overall, A Common Man is the best kind of education: the kind you don’t even notice you’re receiving. Humorous and dramatic in turn, Allen’s monologue held me spellbound for an hour. But just as important was the hour I later spent on Wikipedia – because although I thought I knew the basics on Paine’s life, it turned out there was an awful lot more I’m glad I’ve now been told.