Stars explained: * A production of no real merit
with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not
enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real
life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A
good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely
achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a
great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major
flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic
which lifts theatre to another plane.
A devilish band - Witgood, played by Jack Hawkins, grabs the mike to rail against the corruption of his age - and ours. Pictures: Mark Ellis
A Trick to Catch The Old One
King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon
Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) was just launching out on his own when he penned A Trick to Catch the Old One.
It was written around 1604-5, thus coinciding closely with one of his most famous plays, A Mad World, My Masters, which Edward’s Boys staged in 2009, just a year after this superlative and inspired boys’ company was launched.
Before that, his chief work in his early twenties was in collaboration with some half a dozen others: most notably with Thomas Dekker, ten years his elder.
His A Chaste mayd in Cheapside (one of their two 2010 stagings) belongs to the next decade, the 1610s; and two of his other finest efforts, which are still encountered today, The Changeling and Women beware Women, date from the 1620s - the end of James I’s reign, and the beginning of Charles I’s.
Praise for Edward’s Boys has come from all sides and (very) high places. As one senior academic put it, ‘You’re currently the world’s leading authorities on the performance of Middleton’s boys’ plays.’
Joe Pocknell as the frail but notoriously moneygrabbing
uncle, Pecunius Lucre
Joe Pocknell as the frail but notoriously moneygrabbing uncle, Pecunius Lucre
What sort of material is Middleton’s concern in that early period? Ben Jonson’s Volpone was likewise launched in 1605-6, and in some respects Middleton’s preoccupation with avarice comes close to the miserly aspects of that play. The names of the characters surely pre-empt Restoration Comedy: the wily young Witgood, whose wits are not entirely clever in that he has lost a fortune in dodgy womanising; three spendthrift misers, the dupable Hoard, the greedy Pecunius Lucre (Witgood’s uncle) and the abysmal drunken usurer Dampit; and other undesirables such as Moneylove, Lamprey and Spitchcock.
A perceptive parody of the age, the play might be described, for a start, as critical, insightful and incisive: indeed, the first-class programme notes make some yet more apt suggestions: ‘a wittily exuberant and urbanely ironic commentary on contemporary social mores and values’ catches it aptly. Middleton is ‘an acknowledged master of ironic construction’. Though the play acquired imitators, ‘none of the later incarnations possesses the directness, economy, clarity and ironic texture of the original.’ The word irony is clearly pertinent to this Jacobean genre.
Edward’s Boys productions – the imagination behind them engineered by their founder and director, Perry Mills, to whom we owe the marvellous confidence and assurance of these teenage performers - are never predictable.
Surprises abound. Here a parallel is drawn between the explosive criticisms the playwrights poured out of the bad habits, corrupt social mores and money-grabbing of their age and the establishment-bashing punk revolution of the 1970s onwards.
Cult figures like The Clash and Ian Dury, as well as Pink Floyd, were evoked not just by a first class five-man rock band from the school, but by songs (notably ABBA’s ‘Money, money, money’ sung with a rasping immediacy by several members of the cast.) A cash machine rang out at appropriate moments: the greed and graspingness of the day – then or now - was duly savaged. As Johnny Rotten had it, ‘We still hate each other with a vengeance, but we’ve found a common cause, and that’s your money…’. The searing parody of the Jacobean playwrights was far from mild, but arguably as fierce and scathing as the texts and musical aggressiveness of the punk era.
Hoard by name, hoard by nature. Rory Gopsill turns in a
spellbinding performance as the possessive rival miser
Hoard by name, hoard by nature. Rory Gopsill turns in a spellbinding performance as the possessive rival miser
Edward’s Boys also thrive on strength in depth: in a pretty vast cast, everyone had a task and a role; and even the minor characters brought personality and individuality. Of that, more later.
The story involves a well-to-do young man who persuades a courtesan to pose as a lady of means in order, by devious means, to win back his wealth which has been mortgaged to and effectively sequestered by his mean uncle. In the process, she wins several suitors, and is married to the uncle’s cantankerous rival, an arrangement which oddly suits the lad, as his eyes are really on the grim husband’s desirable niece.
Everybody seems to be pursuing everyone else to squeeze money from them; most are elderly, stomping around with walking sticks and teaming up in various groupings in support of one another’s grasping intentions - or else hoping to flout them.
Jack Hawkins, last year’s leading lady (in Francis Beaumont’s The Woman Hater), has shot up in height and progressed to leading man. His diction is as clear as ever, a joy to listen to and a huge asset, and from his opening lines he acts, as is his wont, with vast conviction. His Witgood is a brilliant manipulator, but devoid of any of the odiousness of his elders. Astute, sympathetic, generous, agile, inventive, never snide nor bumptious nor objectionable, he cuts so worthwhile a figure it’s difficult to imagine his previous randy spendthriftness.
In a way Witgood serves as an intermittent narrator, shrewdly managing events so they gradually fall out the way he wants. This involves a lot of manoeuvring, something he deftly achieves with cheerful good humour. Hawkins holds and dominates the stage with ease; he is a natural actor, gloriously forthright: assured, clever and inventive.
Oliver Lloyd's drunken Dampit relies on a helping hand from the long-suffering Audrey (Tristan Barford)
The ‘lady’ in question is Charlie Waters, an old hand at girls’ parts with Edward’s Boys, and here definitely an upper-cut courtesan as well as masquerading as a passable lady of means. She handles her various suitors with easy confidence and some gift for manipulation. One deficit was a tendency to drop his voice so as not to be entirely audible: this might be improved on in future productions, for Waters is a true pro, a regular and reliable and canny member of this dazzling company.
The revelation of the evening was Rory Gopsill’s old man Walkadine Hoard, part cantankerous and moneygrabbing, part even honourable and decent. This was a dazzling tour-de-force. Every part of Hoard seemed screwed up with anger and frustration: clenched fists, an almost palsied shaking right hand, twitching fingers, wobbling stick, crunching jaw, screwed up or withering eyes, grating jaw, fiery grimace.
All this, and a voice part snarling, part croaking. There seemed no end to Gopsill’s invention, and when he moved out of character to deliver a pop solo with microphone, the voice was truly impressive.
He rules the scene every time he comes on: the consistency of his character building is quite magnificent. One would be tempted to call it brilliant parody, had he not built a character so utterly believable and – paradoxically – so oddly sympathetic. Even as a momentary gardener cum flower arranger he oozes character. All in all, a mighty achievement.
Prison beckons - Witgood (Jack Hawkins) falls victim to his creditors, led by Ritvick Nagar (left, in turban)
Joe Pocknell is another star of Edward’s Boys who came up via female roles – in this case, the maligned victim in John Ford’s The Lady’s Trial. His enunciation then was as lucid as it was moving. The ability of all these boys to deliver such complex immediate post-Elizabethan lines – whole elongated paragraphs - with utter confidence and belief in what they are doing – and indeed to learn the lines in the first place – never ceases to amaze and impress.
Among them Pocknell is a master speaker, a positive poet in his own right, and an actor of real ability; and has been provenly so since his winning Cupid in John Lyly’s Galatea.
It’s true that as one of the bent, stick-supported old geysers here, he has less chance than usual to display his flamboyant gift for moving. Yet Pocknell concocts a suitably crusty, mischievous, acquisitive character of Lucre: he cannot suppress the sparkle in his eyes, and thus the gatherer of wealth becomes less grim: in fact he’s rather fun, as if Witgood – most likely to be his heir - stirs in him memories of his own childhood. He takes on the irascible Hoard as if he were half his actual age.
Pascal Vogiaridis is another of the company’s stalwarts. Somehow he always carves a niche as one of the play’s obliging characters – here the hosteller who obligingly acts as intermediary between the bitter old men. It seems hard to age him: he projects a middle-age, perhaps thirties or forties, figure, and scuttles around either soothing troubled waters or bringing advance news of some new crisis.
As long as Vogiaridis is around, you think things must turn out for the better. He speaks well; spectacles are his forte, giving him a professorial air. Seasons ago he was paired with Waters in Galatea, and they made a delightful pair: even there, he was earnest and solicitous.
Time and again, the lesser roles proved their mettle. Hence the comment about strength in depth. The list is endless. Ritvick Nagar, self-parodying with an outrageously exaggerated Indian accent, was a hoot as the most memorable of the queuing up creditors. Tristan Barford as the patient, longsuffering Audrey, waiting on Dampit’s every whim, produced the most entertaining girl, and Felix Kerrison-Evans the most adorably, slyly feminine one, as Joyce, Witgood’s real inamorata. Nilay Sah had us laughing with his broken-voiced, unlikely, marginally posh, stuck-up Madame Lucre.
It was impossible not to enjoy Jamie Foreman, the taller of two of Pocknell’s painstaking aides-de-camp, or Jamie Mitchell, smallest of the ensemble but in no way to be outdone. Both were able speakers. But of the youngsters, particular accolade to Felix Crabtree as Lucre’s stepson Sam Freedom, a hopeless loser usually dissolving in floods of tears, making a mockery of the business of wooing. (Oliver Lloyd’s Harry Lampit was victim of another haplessness – immersion in drink.) But the other youngster to pick out was the pliant Ewan Craig, a neat mover who from an also-ran role – a mere serving boy - created a tangible presence: another promising member of a notably talented team.
The set was deliberately simple and straightforward. But symbolic, and dominated by a set of soft square dominoes, variously piled, winning cards and a map of doubtless (in those days) ne’er do well parts of London. It worked, to some extent: there was certainly an atmosphere. And doubly so when the miserly members of the cast are suddenly rounded up en masse by living skeletons, in an unexpectedly chilling dance of death. Cupidity, it asserts, will bring its just, ghastly rewards.
But what Edward’s Boys have in abundance is (not just oodles of talent, but) teamwork. The entire company pulls together as if one. The interplay between characters is brisk, slick and urgent: scenes whirl by, the lines scamper by, the evolving story is magnificently well told.
So the true winner in all this was Middleton. Here yet again was a play rediscovered, and a playwright’s painstaking work received due homage. It’s what Edward’s Boys do: they give fresh life to everything they touch. No wonder they have earned such well-deserved accolades.