Charlie Waters

Charlie Waters as a gracious, beautifully spoken Orion the Hunter, surrounded by his
eager and faithful hounds 

Summer’s Last Will and Testament

Edward's Boys

King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon


‘Nay, ‘tis no play neither, but a show’. This pertinent quote comes not from some external Elizabethan critic, but from the onstage commentator Will Summers, (the utterly splendid Dan Power) in Edward’s Boys’ latest foray into almost never seen stageworks from the Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ford and Jonson era.

Thomas Nashe’s Summer’s Last Will and Testament, widely known about but generally neglected onstage, is one of this magical author’s works being revisited and edited by 2022, thanks to a several year-long project to reissue all Nashe’ work, much of it Juvenal- like satire – lashing out, biting, bitter and incisive, and snarling, with Rabelaisian pithiness at Puritanism, plagiarism and pusillanimity, so as to anticipate the early 18th century rants of Pope and Addison.

If the ‘play’ – Nashe was perhaps a mere 24 when he penned it (‘His style was wittie, though it had some gall’, as an obituary of the time put it, following his early death around 1601 – he never made the Jacobean era) - is a medley (some maintained, a mish-mash), this sparkling production by Perry Mills winkled a salient fact: that Summer’s Will is a very coherent potpourri indeed.

What might seem small vignettes, with which the stage business is dotted, were folded into the whole with unerring precision and astonishing acumen. How Mills manages to get his boys, from 11 or 12 year olds to middle and upper teens, to engage with such vast swathes of seemingly elusive, hifalutin text, never ceases to amaze.

Yet that is what his brilliantly marshalled troupe, Edwards’ Boys, do. We saw it with The Lady’s Trial (although the key actor there was, for once, absent here); they did it with The Woman Hater. I’m sure they achieved as much with The Dutch Courtesan (Marston), Dido, Queen of Carthage (Marlowe) and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (Middleton) - quite some titles for an all-boys company.

Beautifully tutored, but also encouraged to draw upon their own exceptional intuition, these canny lads enunciate these often knotty lines with utter poise and total conviction: They seem to have assimilated and understood and indeed mastered every verbal twist and turn, and effortlessly take us, the gobsmacked and aghast audience, with them. They educate not just themselves but us; which is exactly this uniquely talented ensemble’s purpose.

Even by 2004 Edward’s Boys were getting launched at the RSC’s Swan Theatre. They started out with Ralph Roister Doister, a fashionable Henry VIII-era play (hilariously alluded to by Flanders and Swann) which Nicholas Udall based on Terence; and engaged with one of the other Roman sources, the stark, tragic in-your-face quality of Seneca.

Gopsill as Summer


The indefatigable Rory Gopsill as Summer, strongwilled and scorching till now, but planning to retire and not looking exactly chuffed about it 

An early enterprise, The Thisby Project, focused on ‘Playing the Women’s Part on Shakespeare’s Stage’, and unveiled from Perry Mills’ prototype boys’ cast an Olivia, a Viola (boy=girl=boy), Cleopatra, Hecuba, Ariadne, Cressida (soon after Nicholas Wright’s millennium play of that name about bullied Shakespearian boy actors hit the London Stage with Michael Gambon as the outrageously – or enablingly? - demanding Kent figure; Edward’s Boys would surely make a hit out of Peter Straughan’s When We Were Queens, which deals even more poignantly with the same subject); plus a clutch of Restoration Comedy Mesdames from Ben Jonson’s The Epicoene: all of this surely a shot across the bows for what has since followed and taken the stage, including Shakespeare’s Globe, by storm..

Some of these actors, like Charlie Waters (long ago seething with potential, and punching above his weight, play after play, he has now emerged magnificently), his opposite number, the always reliable and usually solicitous factotum and  here major-domo, Pascal Vogiaridis (he did much scuttling: he makes an admirable cast manager), Ben Clarke (Harvest), Dominic Howden (Dick Huntley), or from previous plays George Hodson and Finlay Hatch, have already notched up almost half a dozen appearances.

Before playing the maligned lady, Joe Pocknell, tragically missed this time, contrived to be cast as Cupid twice in a row (in Dido and Galatea); his natural stage presence was, to put it mildly, staggering. Some oldies, like Daniel Wilkinson (a stupendous Diana and withering Woman-Hater) have perhaps passed onwards and upwards, his place as a teeth-gnashing, vulnerable old fart being taken lately with furious assurance by Rory Gopsill, such a triumphant hit as miserly Walkadene Hoard in last time round’s A Trick to Catch the Old One (Middleton), and here playing the central figure, who is – unsurprisingly - Summer.

The general idea in Summer’s Last Will and Testament – applauded for its ‘unique intellectual content and social relevance’ - is that the Seasons are vying to take the plum place as successor to Summer, who is plainly waning (Gopsill wanes highly effectively; one might almost call him a sophisticated fader and decliner: a memorable recidivist at waning).

The play does indeed have something of the pageant about it, which Mills’s production so skilfully captured, not least in some enticing link passages (eg with Waters’ impressively scarlet-clad Orion, the young actor now a figure of palpable authority and stature), that enabled the Director to give a gaggle of, tail-wagging, toe-lapping white-shirted younger performers, hugely promising, their head. Most impressive about this was that they seemed to have no inhibitions at all. How exciting to think that some of these may emerge as future stars of Edward’s Boys’ next generation.

One thing that to a degree puzzled, or (to be briefly curmudgeonly) irritated me, was why the delectable Jack Hawkins, usually commanding the stage, and who looks comely in mock-period costume whether as boy (Galatea’s Aston Villa trio) or girl (as dazzling star of The Woman Hater), was clad in such painfully plain modern-day attire (brown jacket, and the rest to match).

He cut a suave figure, but only that; for once, he seemed curiously reined-in. The idea, logically, would seem to be that as Autumn, mostly deferential and in attendance, he would lose his décor - his verdure: let others disport their many colours; but not, surely, while Gopsill’s Summer doggedly persisted. In a sense, Hawkins seemed stripped down - not to a sappy, squirrel-nested, russet-foliaged treescape, but to dull basics: maybe a slightly fangled way of evoking one who suddenly blossoms, belatedly, as a key personality.

boys mid 2

Winter (George Ellingham), a lawyerish, killjoy stickler for efficiency and frankly not an enthusiast for letting your hair down


Indeed, the real disappointment with Nashe’s treatment of Autumn is that the playwright only unleashes him in the text relatively late. Hawkins has proved himself a truly exceptional verse speaker; and that remains so: yet this seemed not really his moment, for someone who has the range to tread the stage as Romeo, Petruchio, Barabas, Volpone or Lovewit or, from a later era, Jack Absolute.

Mills paraded before us, as ever, some ingeniously differentiated characters. Prominent early on was George Ellingham’s Winter, the season who will of course be the ultimate successor, only to be supplanted himself by the vividly attired Spring of Ritvick Nagar. Ellingham’s Winter, attending with Autumn on Summer like a holy trinity, and knowing rather smugly that his time will come, is quite curmudgeonly himself.

A bit of a know-it-all, black-clad and at times black with anger, the icy season is presented here by Ellingham and Nashe alike with well-contrived consistency as a pinched, nit-picking type, advocate-like and adversarial (in effect Jonsonian before Jonson – though Nashe collaborated with Ben Jonson in 1597) - and perhaps needing more of a punchy delivery to match the fire of his undeniably intelligent utterances.

We got, too, an antique, creaky Solstice from Nick Jones; a finely articulate Sun from Isaac Sergeant; a gorgeously elegant, touching Harvest from Ben Clarke, who, in the right roles (he is less striking in routine ones), can move to tears. Spring has a lot of words, which the highly gifted, colourful Ritvick Nagar turned to excellent effect, though he must have missed the chance of playing his usual antics on the stage. He is a scamp: a Touchstone, a Costard, possibly Lear’s Fool, in the making. Those would give his impish talents full rein.

But the undoubted hit among these Masque-anticipating figures was Joe Coghlan’s Bacchus, a stupendously alive figure whose attire and manner equally suggested glorious prurience and self-indulgence. One special feature here was that the character of Bacchus-Dionysus is too easily parodiable, in action as in Art. Mills and Coghlan seemed to have collaborated on working out something that was entirely fresh, daring, and aptly explosive.

Let the best come last. The inescapable star of the show, how could one doubt it, was Dan(iel) Power’s wonderful, wry, part laid-back, part right in-your-face Will Summer(s): the re-evoked jester of Henry VIII: a performance of genius. The narrative perked up every time he pottered, or coasted, or slithered onto stage, or sat on some member (literally) among the unsuspecting audience. In his blaring-coloured Jester costume with obliging jingling Johnny, this Will was an affable, teasing, cheerfully insulting compère, sensationally articulate with his well-devised North Country accent, and a script to match, of which he truly made the most.

If Power’s Shakespearian idiot from The Woman Hater several times threatened to steal the last show, his (as it were) front-of-curtain master of ceremonies here, a commentator like no other: can one think of a Will Summer in Shakespeare? Jacques or Feste, perhaps; Lear’s coxcombed Fool; or the Porter scene in Macbeth (wouldn’t Power, nigh-on a professional already, do these wonderfully?). A true, natural and instinctive audience manipulator, he had us in fits in our seats. What a fabulous bit of casting.

David Troughton’s Programme Covers, now a regular feature, are always a treat: he contrives by a brilliant fusion of reality and pastiche, assertion and suggestion, to capture the heart of every Edward’s Boys play he illustrates. Here a ghoulish skull and its mock-jesterish offshoot speak reams, bringing home as forcibly as possible that these transitions in seasons are like those Seven Ages of Man: we are all on the

Power as a Jester



The splendiferous Dan Power as the very alive ghost of Henry VIII's jester, Will Summer(s), his sparkling personality and outlandish wit as multicoloured as his jangling outfit   

 march to a sorry end: Christianity and redemption don’t come into it; only sad obsequies and a long lie in the tomb.

Amid the endlessly instructive contents of the company’s regular printed programmes, the Director’s ramblings here are salient as well as entertaining. His introduction, ‘The play is deeply weird and I have grown to love it’ gives some indication of why Edward’s Boys productions are so affecting. There is a lot of love in them: love of text, love of communicating, love of letting off steam, love of faithfulness, love of the art of stagecraft, patent love and support of each other as a (ghastly word) team.

‘Surprising’, subversive’, ‘provocative’: these summations Perry Mills offers are all words I have omitted above, and should certainly have thought of. Mills defies those who rubbish Summer’s Last Will as wordy, repetitive and conventional. The middle adjective is in fact a plus, because Nashe is treating his material cyclically; and despite its many words, so deftly declaimed here throughout, neither of the other two will do, any more than they apply to the Boys’ earlier treatments of Ford or Lyly.

Mills’ phrase ‘pops his clogs’ of Gopsill’s dilapidating Summer, by its very colloquialism, cheekily catches the spirit of the whole; after all, the Elizabethans, Nashe among them, each have their own racy vernacular. And with a sly allusion to T. S. Eliot, he makes the very point that this proto-masque is about human vulnerability, human fallibility, the inevitability of personal extinction, not just a seasonal verbal joust.

And it’s true there’s a lot of joking, singing, dancing and carousing in Edward’s Boys plays. Thank heavens. The greatest triumph of this spectacularly wise, thoughtful and inventive presentation was that it melded all this 1590s farrago into a wonderfully phased, intelligently styled, always relevant production, in which the boys cherished the text and enabled Nashe to speak for himself, and utter his wisdom and witticism with glaring clarity. The cleverness with which these youngsters approached their task, and, as mentioned above, their staggering, resolute lack of inhibition, took us right to the heart of Nashe’s (and possibly, before him, if the scholars are right, Lyly’s) pertinent script.

To think of boy actors and even serving-boys performing Summer’s Will and Testamentt in 1592, in the anti-Puritan Archbishop John Whitgift’s Tudor palace at Croydon (where Nashe even wrote parts of it), is mind-boggling.

But not as boggling as to see these present day boy performers deliver it today with such panache, lucidity, elegance, ease and flair. Performing not just in Stratford but four and a quarter centuries later at that same historic Palace, the current Edward’s Boys, the company as a whole, verges on genius. No, forget the ‘verges on’.

Roderic Dunnett


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