The story of John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee, the notorious ‘man they couldn’t hang’, is set for a unique retelling at Hartlepool Folk Festival on 30th September.
The horrific murder of a woman named Emma Keyse was committed in Babbacombe, Devon, in 1884. The convicted man, John Lee, was already infamous due to feverish press interest in the case, but he passed into legend when, on the day of his hanging, the gallows mechanism failed not once, but three times – causing his death sentence to be commuted to a prison term and ‘Babbacombe Lee’ to become internationally famous.
Inspired by Fairport Convention's masterful 1971 album, Hartlepool Folk Festival has created a new show which looks at the story from a modern perspective – not just investigating whether John Lee was guilty, but examining how folk heroes are created, how theories are manipulated into facts, and asking why women are so often erased from their own stories.
Drawing on the songs and music created by Dave Swarbrick, the show retells the story with new musical arrangements, additional songs by Nancy Kerr, and projections by Marry Waterson. It is directed by Barrie Rutter (Northern Broadsides, Shakespeare’s Globe), and features actor Nicola Sanderson, who worked with Barrie on his production of Jack Lear for Hull Truck. Sam Carter is the eponymous anti-hero, and the house band is the expanded Melrose Quartet. Musical direction is by Jonny Mohun, who has been responsible for the festival’s previous commissioned shows such as The Barrack-Room Ballads and Come All Ye Bold Miners, and James Fagan. Festival Director Joan Crump is the show’s Creative Producer.
“Although it may seem odd to present a Devon story in Hartlepool, we thought that many of its elements had a very contemporary resonance,” Joan explains. “Not least the sense that we live in a post-truth world, where the press and popular culture filter events and how we perceive them. We’re also very interested in how this story, full of women, including the victim, became about one man. We’ve tried to put women’s voices back into the narrative because their absence was almost deafening. We’re using theatre techniques we’ve not attempted before, and bringing in one of the country’s great non-traditional theatre directors to help us bring this show to life. It’s more ambitious than anything we’ve attempted before, but we’re very excited to see how it evolves.”
Babbacombe Lee will be performed on the opening night of Hartlepool Folk Festival on 30th September. Tickets are now available.