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.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Jack Hawkins,The Malcontent's superlative star as the crazy and cynical 'Malevole', the bizarrely disguised, mocking rightful Duke of Genoa - an utterly professional performance from start to finish.

Pictures: Nick Browning,

The Malcontent

Edward's Boys


Plan a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, and where should one head for? The Memorial Theatre’s new auditorium? The Swan? The Other Place? Perhaps even that cheerful amateur local team at the Bearpit.

But be warned, you would be missing one of the most talented, adventurous troupes in England. Edward’s Boys is an ensemble made up wholly of boy pupils at Shakespeare’s former Grammar School, King Edward VI, Stratford. It provides a homage – and a superb one - to the boy actors’ companies of Shakespeare’s time.  

All the roles, including the female ones, are taken by boys. The impact is knockout. Year on year, Edward’s Boys has produced anything up to half a dozen young performers who are plainly unfazed by donning a dress. Some, even many of them, are stunning.

High on the list of pluses is the phenomenally good enunciation. It’s universal: they all seem to have this gift. It’s as if they have all been schooled by the RSC’s top actors. Many of these youngsters reappear in a whole series of productions. There’s therefore a team spirit which  makes often for inspired, brilliant interaction.

Their repertoire is unique in focusing on playwrights of the 1590s and 1600s. Ford, Middleton, Nashe have all figured. One of their specialities is the fiercely satirical John Marston, to whom they have returned this year with The Malcontent. Who else can claim to have revived four Marston plays in just a few years (they launched, in 2008, with Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan)?

Essentially the plot – if you take away the venom - is quite simple. A Duke (Altofronto), driven out by rivals, assumes disguise (as Malevole) to set about reclaiming his throne. He succeeds, by a rigmarole of feigned craziness, in deceiving the enemy, and haunts his own court. Against him are arrayed his false upstart successor (Duke Pietro), but also a manoeuvring rogue who first bamboozles his way to being declared the usurper’s heir and then connives with the latter’s wife to dispose of him and seize the Dukedom.


Crooks together: Ben Clarke (r) as the usurping Duke and Ritvick Nagar as his sly scheming aide, who plots to depose him as well

The Tempest, you might think, and indeed many have sought links between Marston and Shakespeare (although Jacques, often mentioned, seems an unlikely one).

But Marston, like Jonson, is a satirist. ‘Savagely funny’ the Boys’ Founder, Director and Onlie Begetter, Perry Mills, suggests here; ‘but in an invasive, provocative, unsentimental way…not a comfortable evening’. In his staging of The Malcontent (which dates interestingly from 1603, the very year of Elizabeth I’s death and the Stuart succession) Mills has evoked from his young charges all of this, and more. It was another tour-de-force for Edward’s Boys.

Why? Because, as so often, the lead roles, and two in particular, were incredibly strong. Top of the list has to be Jack Hawkins, who has shone in every role since he donned Aston Villa gear as a young wag in Galatea, a mythical extravaganza by John Lyly, one of the key celebrated writers for the Elizabethan boys’ companies. Here in The Malcontent, as the banished Duke attired in flamboyant costume and astonishing, bizarrely flowing wig, he showed what a supremely gifted actor he has become.

In the title role he is not so much discontented as brilliantly manipulative. Accepted into his own court like some kinds of jester, he embarks on his own brand of withering satire. Wielding a pair of drumsticks, which he incredibly deftly employs to a myriad mocking purposes, crazed, raunchy, even rapid, he teases everyone from the upstart Duke to the lowliest plebeian (and the audience), all a show to divert from his own real, concealed persona.

Everything about this astonishingly, bizarrely conceived Malevole underlined Hawkins’ amazing talent, a peak in his invariably, unerringly excellent appearances for the Boys. This dazzling interpretation was professional to a T. The voice – a kind of sneering lisp that is itself a curling insult, craftily abetted by an insulting, darting tongue and strange eerie hiss, is all part of the disguise; so are the ingenious variety of his mocking gestures, some of them artfully obscene; the unexpected, inspired hiatuses peppering his speech, and his intelligently staged pacing overall – a feat to marvel at: the mind-bogglingly alacrity with which he hurtles across the stage to poke sinuous insults; his violently shifting face and emotions, often comic, occasionally savage, especially when he insultingly confronts the bewildered villain of the piece, Mendoza (Ritvick Nagar); his confidential interaction with the audience; the bitter way he sneers out insults like ‘incest’ and ‘adultery’.  


Nick Jones as the deliciously dotty (and cruelly named) Bilioso,

a superbly original, well-turned comic solo

The amazing thing is that amid all this bombast and badinage, these barbs and taunts and abuse, Hawkins’ utterances – as with several of the Jacobeans, there are a lot of meaty, tricky, horrifyingly difficult lines in Marston – was perfect.

Every one of his soliloquies was unfaultable. It’s a gift virtually every one of Edward’s Boys have, a lucidity that seems utterly unfazed by scenes often much more challenging than Shakespeare’s, and whose meaning is often scary and challenging to divine.

Yet the Boys, large and small alike, tease these texts out, line after line, free of prompts, as if they were normal Year 8 or 9 chatter, or playground gossip. They are a marvel to behold, but as much a marvel to hear.

Who else cannot avoid mention? Ben Clarke has worked his way through the past five years of Edward’s Boys productions. As the usurping Duke, Pietro, he gave one of his best performances. It’s not that, clad in a suit, he is a master of invention. But here he had a regal air about him, and his exchange with a young Page, stretched on a bare bench, was profoundly affecting; the Page’s speaking was superlative, surely boding good things in the future, and the pair’s interaction was a tangibly moving moment.

Dominic Howden, like Clarke another longstanding Edward’s regular, provided a loyal Celso – the only genuine friend Malevole has throughout the play, steady and reliable. Nagar has sparkled in previous productions, particularly as he makes a splendid and spirited young scamp. In a serious part, though suit-clad, possibly he needed more punch, more slyness, more thought-through invention, more detail, more venom: in this grimly knowing and manipulative role, some of the ingenuity he brings to comedy might have helped.

His task here is to be scarily, unremittingly, even cruelly villainous: it calls for an Iago (who also has a comic edge). That, to some extent, in his nasty, cocky, sinuous, even brutal plotting (‘Mischief that prospers men do virtue call’) he achieved quite sardonically.

If The Malcontent is a Tragi-Comedy, or, as the Director provocatively proposes, a Comi-Tragedy, a proportion of the comic was supplied here by Nick Jones’s Bilioso: a comic, floundering elderly courtier, somewhere between Polonius and (perhaps more) The Tempest’s Gonzalo.


Felix Crabtree as the rightful Duke's loyal wife, a touching and poignant moment

Made bald by a particularly funny wig, self-consciously upright and with shaky hand twitching behind him; ponderous in step, a zany, dotty, pottering figure, scrupulously diligent, constantly hovering on the sidelines in the hope of being enlisted for some royal duty, and touchingly triumphant when dispatched on an errand; crotchety and nervous, but striving to control both; an endlessly dutiful decrepit old retainer. Ever ingratiating, always, almost irritatingly, benevolent and benign. A hilarious, witty performance.   

The women? The tangled courtly tale’s central figure is Aurelia (Tristan Barford), aptly played as a deliberately rather nasty, jumped-up piece of work: bossy, disloyal and out for her own benefit, as indeed a Duchess must often be; tiresome, unreliable yet – in part – malleable.

Emilia and Bianca arguably needed more individual character: their roles, a few three-way interchanges apart which were rather snappy and entertaining), Marston paints as essentially onlookers. But Felix Crabtree is an actor whose potential I have always tended to rate. His task here was again pretty minimal - to emerge at the end as Maria, Duke Altofronto’s (Malevole’s real name) reunited spouse.

Yet there was somehow a real poignancy about this touching turn of events. And that was down to the touchingly demure, shy, reticent way in which Crabtree treated his modest role. Enough to make a difference Think of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale.         

If there was anyone in the cast to rival Hawkins’ irrepressibly hyperactive Malevole, it was the French maid, Maquerelle: somewhere between a family tutor and a deliciously upmarket tart. Here, from the endlessly adroit, breathtakingly funny Will Groves were all the ingredients of a great, indeed scintillating performance.

His dazzling, tight-fitting scarlet trouser suit was a miracle in itself; so was the brilliantly chosen, particularly dishy blonde wig. He looked gorgeous. His/her French accent – think of that lovely language lesson with Queen Katharine (and nurse) in Olivier’s Henry V - was to die for. Impeccable: full of French ‘r’s and perfectly turned vowels: a real natural: staggering invention, and a masterpiece of comic delivery. RSC standard in itself.


Will Groves - a hilarious, side-splitting performance as the French lady in waiting and royal confidante Maquerelle, his parody accent astonishingly brilliant from start to finish

Somehow Groves managed to be utterly outrageous without being camp (though the sighing asides, unashamed flirtatiousness and cheekily sensual, evocative gestures teetered near it). What made his antics so professional was the sheer range of his moves, gestures, sniggers, girly chit-chat. You could monitor the face, the neck, the hands, the gossipy boudoir confidentiality, and finds something new in his peformance each time.

 Like Hawkins, he had an immense, immeasurable array of invention: clever, witty, flighty, sly, impertinent, provocative, effortlessly presumptuous, mischievous, shrewd, canny, ravishing; and could switch effortlessly from any one to another. Subtle; sleazy; sexy, and stupendous.

A range of additional detail supplied this production added energy. The music deserves a mention: it harnessed better than it sometimes has with some of the productions I’ve been dazzled by; but it was the quality of the playing that engaged me here.

Violin and cello (if I heard aright), each with gorgeous tone. Strikingly pliant and engaging alto saxophone. Sensibly restrained keyboard (and one other). But what caught my ears, and admiration, was two young (first or second year) boys singing in upper-voice duet. Enchanting: accurate and moving. The music took off for a rather wonderful dance sequence near the end. Again what astounded one is the precision of the direction, and hence of the moves.

And their sheer intelligence. Is there anything these boys cannot do?

Roderic Dunnett


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