“The law is reason, free from passion.” Aristotle
Last week was the teenagers acting debut, performing with her school theatre group the BSAK Ensemble in three shows of ‘The Bentley Project’ based on the real life story of Derek Bentley, the last man hanged in England.
Now the topic was a brave and controversial one, the rehearsal schedule gruelling (lunchtimes, after school and some weekends) and the commitment required demanding. On describing the production ahead of the show, the teenager said it was a fragmented, non-chronological piece, to which we replied ‘Whatttt?” Stupid parents indeed!
I was lucky enough to go twice, to both evening performances which were equally excellent (only slightly biased of course!). Over the two nights the other half and some of our friends supported her in the audience, with the feedback being really good. The acting was of a high standard, the interpretation of such a sensitive and emotive subject by a group of teenagers was superb, much better than I expected to be honest. The piece crossed back and forth across the timeline of Bentley’s life from a young boy to a teenager, whose life was tragically ended early, punctuated with chanting and singing including the haunting and poignant hymn ‘Abide with Me’. The actors who played Bentley portrayed him brilliantly as both a young boy and an adolescence. Bentley was an illiterate and epileptic boy, who at the time of his death, aged only nineteen had a mental age of an eleven-year-old. The villain of the story, sixteen-year-old Christopher Craig was also depicted well, almost to the point of overacted, with the most expressive eyes and a very strong stage presence.
The story was told in detail and the injustice of the case was clear for all to see. Particular scenes were revisited and extended to reveal more of the tale but my favourites included the whole ensemble divided into two halves shouting “Free Derek Bentley” and ‘Hang Derek Bentley” in unison, the petitioners canvassing for signatures to save Bentley and a funny point of reprieve from the sad tale (on stage only, not in the real life case) was the Kangaroo court scene with the Queen and her refusal to comply with public demand in the case and reverse the decision. I liked how the piece explored Bentley’s mental age and his love of records and movies, his favourites acted out and sang by some of the multi-talented cast, while Bentley was incarcerated in Wandsworth.
Praise must go to all the cast who showed incredible passion in their performance and to the flamboyant Head of Drama who directed the piece, engaging every actor who obviously all hold the utter most respect for him. Set over one-act only, the staging was simple, the props minimal and the costumes in tonal muted shades keeping the intensity focused on the actors and the story. Even though the scheduling was gruelling and nerves were off the scale, the teenager enjoyed every minute of the experience and is sad it’s all over. Not only did it educate those involved in the history of the case, provoking powerful emotions but also united the cast aged from fourteen to eighteen, across four-year groups.
Bentley was executed at Wandsworth Prison in London for his part in the murder of PC Sidney Miles in Croydon, after a petition and last-minute appeals for clemency to the Home Secretary were rejected and the Queen declined to exercise her royal prerogative of mercy. The murder was committed by Craig after Bentley had already left the scene. Craig, injured one policeman and then fired the fatal shot that killed the second officer, but as a juvenile he escaped the death sentence and faced only imprisonment. Craig although younger was the ringleader of the two and Bentley’s mental age, younger than Craig’s was not disclosed to the jury. Three officers told the court they had heard Bentley encourage Craig to shoot by shouting “Let him have it”. Bentley’s defence claimed he was already under arrest at the time the shots were fired and was simply urging Craig to give up his gun.
At 9am on 28 January 1953, Bentley was hanged for murder, hangman Albert Pierrepoint said “When you go to hang a boy of 19 years old, it does not matter that he is tall and broad-shouldered, for at nine o’clock on the morning he is to die, he still looks only a boy.” The case led to a tiresome 45-year-long campaign by his family to win a posthumous pardon, which was granted partially in 1993, then completely in 1998. His mother, father and sister died before the pardon was issued. Bentley’s body was exhumed from Wandsworth and reburied in the family plot.
Another proud mummy moment, it was good to see the teenager back on stage after the many years of dance shows and music recitals back in the UK, this time fulfilling her drama queen role. Congratulations must go to all those involved in ‘The Bentley Project’ for a job well done! I am looking forward to the next production already…………
All views are my own based on my experience. Unless otherwise stated, all photos on this page © Jo Brett 2013. All rights reserved.