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One-man show brings Thomas Paine back to Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 15:37 28 March 2019 | UPDATED: 16:01 28 March 2019

Actor Ian Ruskin embodies Thomas Paine in his play that is being performed in Diss and Thetford. Picture: Age of Reason Productions

Actor Ian Ruskin embodies Thomas Paine in his play that is being performed in Diss and Thetford. Picture: Age of Reason Productions

© Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com

He is one of Norfolk’s most famous and infamous sons now a play about the extraordinary life of Thomas Paine is being staged in his home county.

An instrumental figure in both the French and American revolutions, as a democratic campaigner, writer and political thinker, the corset-maker’s son was also one of the first people to add his voice to the anti-slavery fight while in America.

His life story from humble Norfolk roots to someone who can claim to have changed the world will be told when Ian Ruskin performs his one-man play in Thetford, Paine’s birthplace, and Diss where he worked as a staymaker for a spell in the 1760s.

Mr Ruskin’s play, Thomas Paine’s To Begin the World Over Again, has been performed close to 100 times in the US as well as in London. A film version was directed by Haskell Wexler, who made Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Actor Ian Ruskin embodies Thomas Paine in his play that is being performed in Diss and Thetford. Picture: Age of Reason ProductionsActor Ian Ruskin embodies Thomas Paine in his play that is being performed in Diss and Thetford. Picture: Age of Reason Productions

The actor will perform the play at Diss Corn Hall on May 9 and Thetford Grammar School on May 10.

The evening before the Diss performance, Mr Ruskin will also appear in a Diss Museum celebration of Paine’s links to the town at Beehive Yard in Denmark Street where he spent a year working as a staymaker for a Mr Gudgeon.

The equal rights champion was born in 1737 and left Thetford when he was 19. He went on to pen the 18th century’s three best-selling books including Rights of Man, and gave strong support to the French Revolution.

Actor Ian Ruskin embodies Thomas Paine in his play that is being performed in Diss and Thetford. Picture: Age of Reason ProductionsActor Ian Ruskin embodies Thomas Paine in his play that is being performed in Diss and Thetford. Picture: Age of Reason Productions

Having emigrated to America, Paine’s 1776 pamphlet Common Sense is said to have swung American popular opinion in favour of independence from Britain.

Mr Ruskin said: “This is a homecoming for his story. I focused on writing a play about a person, not a historical figure. For example, the first 30 plus years of his life in England were remarkably unremarkable.

“His book Common Sense sold an estimated 300,000 copies to a population of two million and was read by just about everyone who could read. It was literally, the spark of the revolution. He had a sharp wit and could make skilled use of sarcasm, but possessed little political tact. Some claimed that he enjoyed his brandy.

A statue of Thomas Paine that now stands in his birthplace Thetford. Picture: Sonya DuncanA statue of Thomas Paine that now stands in his birthplace Thetford. Picture: Sonya Duncan

“He died poor and largely forgotten. Those who did remember were not kind in their opinions. But Paine’s words and vision ring out more clearly that ever with all that is happening in the world today.”

• Thomas Paine’s To Begin the World Over Again will be performed at Diss Corn Hall on May 9, 7.30pm, £12 (£8 under-18s), 01379 652241, disscornhall.co.uk

• It will be at the Williamson Hall, Thetford Grammar School on May 10, 7pm, £5, 01842 751975, leapinghare.org

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