London was in crisis after the Second World War. A rapidly expanding population and severely reduced housing stock forced the Government of the time to look further afield. Their eyes settled on the distant fields of north Cambridgeshire. For the social historian, the play is a fascinating canter through some of the events that defined Britain of the late twentieth century. We are offered political debate and decision-making in the guise of TV quiz shows of the various era [who remembers Blankety Blank without an involuntary shudder?]. Songs which are clearly derived from the music of Abba and the Beatles illuminate the subject matter. The central character of Peter catalogues historical events that provided the background to the tale of Peterborough’s reinvention as a new town. The Great Train Robbery; Liverpool FC’s seemingly endless appropriation of the 1st Division trophy; Dixon of Dock Green; the Thatcher administration, Aids and the economic straights which are now the nation’s plight; all, and much more, jog the memory and provide the context.
The story of Peterborough itself benefits from this contextual placement. From the annexation of vast acres of agricultural land by compulsory purchase to the hopelessly optimistic installation of a fixed-price community central heating system [so warm it melted snow on the streets], the city grows in stature and in status throughout the evening with the cathedral acting as a touchstone of immutability throughout. It is subject to the normal ups and downs of life and the major protagonists in its story are affected likewise. At the head of Peterborough Development Corporation, Wyndham Thomas, was clearly a visionary colossus who drove through his ideas with the enthusiasm and support of a loyal and believing team. The story is one of their qualified success.
The emigrant London family of Jack, Mary, Peter and Janice work, play, love, laugh, fight and die. Their story is intensely normal. It’s one that was played out in thousands of houses across the country. What is interesting is Emson’s version that sees an unbreakable bond being created between the people and the place. Initially resistant to the move out, Mary wants to return, ultimately, to Peterborough to pass her remaining days. It is a touching accolade for her adopted home.
There are some lovely songs that enrich the piece. Egerton’s touch is assured with a real mastery of musical style and genre being very much in evidence. His New Town Blues is an especial triumph. The performances, the design and the direction are clear, giving pride of place to the inspiration for the whole endeavour – the flawed diamond that is Peterborough.