What do you know about Thomas Paine? If, like us, your reaction to his name is, "err, the Common Sense bloke? Rights of Man?" Trevor Griffiths's A New World - A Life of Thomas Paine may hit you like a dramatised history lesson. Which on the 200th anniversary of the end of a pretty remarkable life is perhaps no bad thing.
Thomas Paine seems to be a figure that demands work. Playwright Trevor Griffiths has been working on his Life of Thomas Paine for more than a decade. The original script was to demand nearly six hours from its audience. Today's play still lasts for three.
On stage, there's no less muscle being flexed. A slick, tight cast of 25 take on up to four roles each, switching wigs, jackets, hose, musical instruments and accents with remarkable speed and bravery.
The epic, sweeping, film-like quality of A New World requires work from the Globe's audience too. You need to keep up with the imperceptible, second-long scene changes, as the near-bare Southwark stage moves from American colony-bound boat to beach to printer's shop to Pennsylvania street in mere moments. It's potentially exhausting. The War of Independence, contentious chats in the new Congress, revolutionary Paris, French jail, hostile Britain; all this is to come.
Yet in playwright Griffiths's capable hands, the 36-odd years between Thomas Pain (he gained the "e" later, due to a typo) arriving in the British American colonies and his death in New Jersey do eventually come together. A nice touch of dramatic licence sees Benjamin Franklin (Keith Bartlett) work as a helpful Gandalf-like narrator, long after his death.
Flashes of light in a meaty script also help the audience along. Franklin's "America. Don't you just love it?!" and the use of "OK" by a young slave boy ("It means, yes. Sure.") as well as plenty of other knowing giggles ("You won't be troubling Shakespeare," says one early reviewer of Paine's work) shine through denser political discussion. We loved the extensive use of French (top marks to James Garnon as Danton, among others); the two sexy independent women (played brilliantly by Alix Riemer and Laura Rogers) in what could easily have been an overly masculine show; and History Boy / Valkyrie Jamie Parker, who's brilliant in everything.
Our reservations about the piece actually come from the figure of Paine himself. Actor John Light sulked his way around the stage rather quietly, rarely taking the spotlight. Does he lack the charisma to pull this part off? Other characters describe Paine as a "mule," "an awkward, troubled, tender soul"; perhaps this was the point, but we couldn't help wanting more from our eponymous hero.
And in trying to squeeze Thomas Paine's whole life into a three-hour show, we wonder if some essential drama was lost. There was no building to a climax, no dénouement. We ended up rather wishing for a leisurely seven-part BBC costume drama instead of the relentless battering of ideas against time. You have to worry when the Thomas Paine wiki entry offers more excitement (he escaped death?) than the dramatisation.
A New World: A Life of Thomas Paine then is play with wonderful words, incredible ideas, brilliant history, and plenty of theatre... but perhaps not quite enough drama.