Actor Toby Davies as King Henry 1st in the Play Henry the 1st, Performed by the Rabble Theatre Company Reading

The Play -  Henry the 1st By Beth Flintoff

Toby Davies King Henry and Joseph Black as Bishop Roger - Rabble Theatre Reading. Picture By Alex Brenner

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A Right Royal Rabble in Reading!

History, drama and Game of Thrones fans get thee to Reading Abbey Ruins fast! - Writes Editor, Alison Jane Reid.

There's a blistering, important, riot of a new history play By Beth Flintoff, performed by a rabble of coruscating actors at The Rabble Theatre Company in Reading that tells the real story of the English crown. This is the incredible story of four noble brothers who fought for the crown of England and Normandy after the death of their father William the Conqueror and, eventually, the fourth brother won. When does that happen?!  

The play dissects our thousand-year-old monarchy and you must drop everything to see it.  Henry the 1st is about our royal family's evolution and how they acquired extraordinary wealth and power and held onto it.

"Henry the 1st is a blistering, bloody, bawdy and right royal history lesson on what happened after the Battle of Hastings. Don't you dare miss it!" The Luminaries Magazine.

The Death Scene of William the Conqueror in the Play Henry the 1st

The quality of the writing, research and ambition of the play makes it one of the cultural events of the summer.  Beth Flintoff's storytelling is like a magnificent Medieval tapestry with many stories and ideas to fascinate and delight you from a treatise on family, invasion, love, royalty and power to a girl power polemic on the position of women in Medieval society.  

Rabble's specially commissioned play is also an important showcase for female acting talent and future stars, worthy of Kate Winslet, a Reading girl, and admirer of this production. They are - Amy Conachan as the dynamic Countess of Blois, and confidant of her brother Henry; Georgie Fellows as a fearless and charismatic Queen Edith and Mabel; Angelica Serra as Agnes of Ponthieu and Juliana of Breteuil and Gabrielle Sheppard who plays the dissolute and unpopular king William Rufus and William Atheling.

A Stunningly Atmospheric History Lesson

If you were not that keen on history at school, this play makes it captivating if at times barbarous and cruel. It pulses with Machiavellian scheming and it is brutal, bawdy, richly costumed with cloth of gold, emerald and crimson and it is stunningly atmospheric as the performance takes place in the heart of Reading Abbey Ruins.

Henry the 1st is a multi-layered performance from the very fine acting to the artistry of the music, lighting, fight scenes and budding community actors. The action revolves around an ever-changing, painterly stage, which reverberates to Rosalind Steele's ghostly ethereal melodies juxtaposed with Benjamin Hudson's thunderous beats.

Henry the 1st By Playwright Beth Flintoff, Reading Abbey Ruins

What are you waiting for?

If you want to witness the real-life inspiration for the dynastic struggles in Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon this is it. The play is named after King Henry the 1st, the central subject of the play and it is written by talented Berkshire playwright Beth Flintoff. The remarkable story of Henry's life and long reign was sparked by a simple, tantalising plaque which declares, "Near to this spot was buried King Henry Beauclerc, who founded Reading Abbey.

Reader, they still don't know where the king's body lies!

The Forgotten King - Henry the 1st in a Town Called Reading

Henry the 1st was the forgotten king until now. We all studied William the Conqueror, Henry's father. This is about what happens next.  Now, thanks to Flintoff's forensic, clever, intensely physical, colourful, visceral play, we now know that Henry possessed the qualities that define the earliest kings and queens of England and actor Toby Davies imbues his very human portrait of a man and a king with zeal, wit, charisma and ultimately humility.  Henry was both cultured and tough and known as the 'scholar king' who founded a zoo in Oxford to study animals.

Henry was courageous too on the battlefield, quelled countless rebellions, delivered peace to England, locked up his brother (to keep the peace) and was famously virile, fathering 22 children outside the royal marriage to his Queen Edith and even attempting for the very first time to put a woman on the throne. That alone is remarkable, given how little power or rights women had in the 12th Century.  

Angelica Serra as Agnes of Pontieu and Amy Conachan As Adela, Countess of Blois

Reading, my childhood city, is now not just a place you pass through on the train. It's the main cultural event from coruscating, original live theatre to art, exquisite local food, beautiful Victorian architecture and luxuriant beautiful hotels for the art of slow travel.  And if you can't get to Reading this week, you can follow the play to Winchester Great Hall and the Actor's Theatre in Covent Garden in July as the play goes on a short tour due to growing acclaim and demand.  Tickets and Dates Here

The Full Review of Henry the 1st

Henry the 1st is Beth Flintoff's masterpiece and a thrilling reimagining of a critical period in English history, staged by the Rabble Theatre Company  The play features a stellar line of up-and-coming acting luminaries with marvellous roles for women who proved they could govern as well as any man from Queen Edith to Henry's sister the Countess of Blois who administered a large county in Normandy. Hal Chambers directs with a stunningly audacious, complex, philosophical and sympathetic realisation of a scholar king under constant siege trying to create peace no matter how cruel the cost.  

A scene of royal revelry and debauchery in the play Henry the 1st, Performed in Reading at the Abbey Ruins

The result is theatre that delights the mind and engages all the senses.  Henry the 1st is an intoxicating meditation on the nature of royalty, power and family dynamics and it examines the earliest foundations of royalty from conquest to the vast acquisition of land and the way our society was founded and set up. Nothing could be more fascinating and relevant as we embark on the age of King Charles the Third.

The story of King Henry the 1st is by turns tragic, poetic, cruel, swaggering, bawdy and unapologetically feminist in its message and it's the finest physical theatre you will see this summer. You could say it's all about the royals behaving very badly... to each other, in pursuit of power, castles, sex, money, heirs and immortality!  

If you think our current Royal Family is dysfunctional, just wait until you meet William the Conqueror's four sons Richard, William, Robert and Henry. They barely know each other and they are not a likeable bunch. They all want to be king after the death of their father William the Conqueror. As a result, they spend years trying to get the crown through rebellions, disinheritance, cruel marriages of convenience, banishment, poisonings and insurgencies until Henry seizes the crown at Winchester and crowns himself, king, after the death of his brother during a stag hunt.  

Henry the 1st a New Historical Play By Beth Flintoff Performed by the Rabble Theatre Company

What makes this play relevant and important is the thrilling illumination of Henry's reign and the bold look at the women in Henry's life who were not mere chatelaines. They are educated, accomplished women with ambitions that match the men in their lives.  

Henry the 1st is performed right at the heart of the ruins of Reading Abbey offering a live history lesson that you will talk about for years to come. Henry built the abbey to atone for a long and difficult reign and The Rabble Theatre has succeeded brilliantly in igniting interest in Henry and his legacy to the town in 2023.

The play opens in the round, intimately, to the sound of menacing, eerie battle music, with the audience enclosed in the ancient, decayed bones of the Abbey, once a beacon for the church for miles around. Reader, it was exhilarating. It's the closest thing to experiencing history live and all around us and half expecting the real Henry the 1st to appear on the crumbling, craggy ramparts and deliver a monologue to explain his reign and all those mistresses!

The Coronation of King Henry the 1st- Rabble Theatre Company Reading

For the next two and half hours we are thrust back to the Medieval age to meet a family where blood ties mean nothing. In fact, they are a curse. The play is a visual and physical banquet while the comedy lightens the carnage and cruelty. Costume designer Sarah Jane Booth has created a clever chameleon stage which is a cross between a battlefield, a castle, a shipwreck and a skateboard park. The muted colours of the stage look like a decayed rainbow and work organically against the decayed walls of the Abbey Ruins.  

The costumes are a magnificent highlight of the play, effectively transporting us in style to Medieval England with sumptuous cloth in gold, red, orange and green. The leads flaunt court dress and symbolism and the flamboyance of the age with exaggerated fluttering sleeves, glittering kingly robes and emerald gowns clashed with modern tights for colourful hose and trainers to give an accessible 21st-century edge to the production.

William Rufus and Henry During a Battle - Rabble Theatre Reading

While the fight scenes are daring, and brutally physical, they are also as elegant as any ballet spiked by an outrageous, ever-present threat of rebellion, sudden tragic events or a nasty death by any means. The actors move about the stage effortlessly, like prowling, frisky cats. The choreography is faultless. The battle scenes and skirmishes are contrasted sharply with a comic, avaricious deathbed scene, over-the-top drunken debauchery and a sweet and erudite, tender royal courtship which contrasts with a profoundly ugly and disturbing scene of the evil Belleme's rape of a young widow in a forest.

Shock and Awe Writing

Flintoff succeeds brilliantly in giving us a shock and awe history less on the Medieval age and monarchy which by turn is brutal, captivating, fearlessly frank and relatable. It's a fascinating picture of how the fourth son of William the Conqueror came to be king of England by seizing the day. (This makes me think about the current spare, Prince Harry. Anything can happen).

The King's Daughters, Henry the 1st, Rabble Theatre Reading

What it also shows is that Henry the 1st was a pragmatic, capable and dynamic king who also attempted to put Matilda, his daughter on the throne, a bold idea that would not come to fruition until the reigns of Bloody Mary and Elizabeth the 1st. That makes him a king to know and a revolutionary. Oh, and one last thing. I like him because he thought Reading was cool enough to build the Abbey.

Now hot foot it to see the play!

Copyright Alison Jane Reid/The Luminaries Magazine - June, Reading, England.

All Stage Photography Alex Brenner Productions. No reproduction without permission.

The Roseate Hotel Reading

Alison Jane stayed as a guest of The Roseate Five-Star Hotel in the historic quarter of Reading, close to the Reading Abbey Ruins. The Hotel is a co-sponsor of the play Henry 1st written by Beth Flintoff and performed by the Rabblele Theatre Reading. For more information visit the website. Roseate Hotel Reading Review of the Roseate and the arts, food and culture scene in Reading coming soon.

About the Journalist

Alison Jane Reid is a Scottish/English feature writer, editor and slow luxury tastemaker. Her iconic career in British national newspapers spans three decades. AJ worked as a lead feature writer specialising in cultural icons at The Times Magazine for a decade. AJ trained at Mirror Group Newspapers and went on to work as a contributing editor at The Lady and You Magazine. Her iconic interviews and features have also been published in Country Life, The Independent, ES, The Evening Standard, Coast and Harpers Wine and Spirits Magazine.

She has also appeared in broadcast journalism for  - ITV, Channel 5, Sky, V&A Fashion Documentary and our own television channel on YouTube.

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