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


Daniel Wilkinson as Gondarino, the Woman Hater. Pictures: Mark Ellis.

The Woman Hater

The Other Place, Stratford


If we ever thought of Beaumont and Fletcher as tag-ons to the Elizabethan-Jacobean literature, mere adjuncts to Shakespeare’s final collaborative plays, and shadows of the era’s other true greats - Marlowe and Jonson - then the merest glance at The Woman Hater, written by Beaumont (mainly) in the aftermath (staged 1606) of James I’s accession and one of Shakespeare’s most daunting tragicomedies, Measure for Measure, should scotch that idea.

Brought to life by that most gifted of ensembles, Edward’s Boys, spawned by Shakespeare’s own school in Stratford-upon-Avon, this was bound to be a performance to treasure: clever, articulate, fabulously well-spoken, effortlessly inventive, riddled with brilliant and by no means obvious touches: a fusion of the daring, the presumptuous, the self-righteous and the hilarious. In Beaumont, the boys were as buoyant as ever.

As one scholar observed, it seems ‘outrageous that a playwright could ever consider writing such a play for boy actors’. The play is like Jonson writ large: a forceful, endlessly parody of all levels of society and every kind of societal fad and quirk. ‘You never quite know what kind of a play you are experiencing’, writes another academic observer, acutely.T

In an Italy more Visconti than Medici, Edward’s Boys’ gloriously flamboyant staging combines a Duke and his acolytes, fond of plumbing society’s seedier corners; a glutton as poetic as he is ravenous for . . . fish (the double entendres, both elegant and smutty, begin here and abound); a virtuous noble lady nearly undone by others’ perjury; a smart, slick, aristocratic narrator whose outward flippancy is matched by a serious sense of right and wrong; a gullible merchant with philosophic aspirations; a whore with a heart; and aDaniel Power and Ritvick Nagar clutch of extras whose every utterance casts unexpected light on the goings-on of their lords and masters.

More to the point, it was written for the Boys of Paul’s, a cathedral choristers’ ensemble wound up scarcely a year later: the very idea seems astonishing, when one considers the elegant flourishes, seductive wit, daring and subtlety of its verse, and the rapid whirl of ideas and fluid situations that change before our eyes like the twirl of a kaleidoscope.

Daniel Power  as the fish-obsessed Lazarillo and Ritvick Nagar as his  know-it-all Boy.

Edward’s Boys are a company like no other. The entire cast is made up of boys from King Edward VI, Stratford. In Perry Mills’ production, here as previously, one is aghast at the quality of their delivery, their intelligence, their mastery of vast swathes of Jacobean utterance - Francis Beaumont and his (to a degree) collaborator John Fletcher share the big speeches around to notable effect, so that even the lesser parts periodically have their say.

One wonders also at the brazen confidence of their acting; the sharpness of their wit; the shrewd interpretation, stock-full of invention, scene after scene; the deft, rapier-like, insolent verbal interchanges, the lines sometimes galloping along, supercharged with the competence, aptitude and confidence of professional performers; the sheer savvy and nous that the performers bring, making light of tricky, verbose exchanges; and the obvious passion of this whole young cast - a proficient team if ever there was one - to communicate, which they do with aplomb.

Often seen nowadays at Shakespeare’s Globe, Edward’s Boys’ productions, fiendishly innovative, feel up to Mark Rylance standards: productions are in your face, impudent, gloriously unpredictable, shamelessly skilled, cheeky, presumptuous. Most of the main leads are retreads: seasoned King Edward hacks, fiendishly abreast of the craft of acting; even where they waver, or momentarily droop - something that rarely happens - the impact is rarely less than first-class.

It is a boys’ play peopled by tarts, spies and informers, and Plautus-like servants cannier than their masters. One might start with the last. Those who were yesterday’s youngsters (often, but not always, in girls’ roles) have come on apace. Ritvick Nagar, Lazarillo’s (the glutton’s) servant, is a natural scamp, who caught the eye last time and is now an accomplished - if not scene-stealer, scene-enlivener.

His range of exasperated facial expressions outdid even those of his impossible, wild-eyed master. Cleverly directed, so that his exits alone tended to be an event, he looks to be a future (as weCharlie Waters as a tart of considerable stylell as current) asset. Not wholly, for all of the characters, from Daniel Wilkinson’s woman-terrified (rather than woman-hating) lead tended slightly to over-repeat certain smirks or grimaces, stances and gestures. So there was both range and limitation, the latter of which could run the risk of making characters fractionally cardboard; that danger was mercifully avoided.

Even Joe Pocknell’s affable narrator, the hip, easy-goes, not-quite-mafioso Count Valore, suffered from that. He is, by miles, one of their best: from such oodles of talent, one expects, and often gets, miracles. This is one hell of a pro. But he needed to find more in, to squeeze more out, of his casual master of ceremonies role.

Charlie Waters as Julia, a courtesan of considerable style

He was at his best when standing up for his increasingly beleaguered sister. Pocknell does righteous anger well. He also holds a stage effortlessly (though must never take that for granted), as he did in the two previous productions, Lyly’s Galatea and Ford’s The Lady’s Trial, where it was he that was maligned, and he who drew, with stunning, poignant expertise, all our sympathy.

To be honest, we were hooked from the outset, by James Williams’ Prologue, exquisitely delivered, each word a polished pearl, just like his Epilogue and - an intriguing doubling - the old country ‘gentlewoman’ who is wheeled out, almost with ear-trumpet, further to muddy the ducal waters. Like Nagar, these smaller roles delivered the goods: the two rotten spies (‘Intelligencers’, with Soviet propensities), Nick Jones and Alistair Campbell, were among the clearest speakers amid a team where there was no weak link.

Charlie Waters has been promoted from hapless nymph to brazen courtesan, and did so with such style, pirouetting and skedaddling on high heels you’d think he’d walked or gavotted on them all his life (it must have taken some practice). Already a provenly attractive verse-speaker, here as Julia he delivered his lines (mostly audible, a near-cousin to Oliver’s Nancy) with such assurance that he seemed to me in both respects to have come on several miles. But it is also Julia who gets one of those Feste-like moments of pure beauty in the play: Fletcher’s verse ‘Come, Sleep, and with thy sweet deceiving’, the music for which was enchanting and Waters’ singing of it even more so.

Another who has transformed into a shrewd, polished actor is Waters’ Galatea inamorato, Pascal Vogiaridis, whose full potential I didn’t spot then, but whose mature performance here as the gulled Shopkeeper or Mercer lent colour and character to every scene he appeared in. He (almost alone, bar perhaps Lazarillo) offered a nice foreign accent: not Italian, scarcely Hispanic: was it possibly tinged with Greek? Spectacles a-dangle, a bit of a book-worm, Vogiaridis gave us a classic Jonsonian dupe, and seemed to design and fit his studious role perfectly. A treat to watch and a treat to listen to.

If this pair has come on apace, one who didn’t need to was Jack Hawkins, in the lead female role. He has it all there. A delightful Aston Pascal Vogiaridis (a bookish dupe)Villa-clad miladdo in Galatea, he still - and how! - had the voice to carry off a female role. And what we received, in Oriana, was a lesson in daring acting and a lesson in exemplary delivery. He is almost embarrassingly well-endowed with a talent that seems wholly natural. His speaking of every word was like a polished jewel: assured, expressive, staggeringly elegant; and totally, utterly into his part, he produced a performance of passion that must have entertained, then melted, every onlooker.

And when he burst into ‘Hey, mambo Italiano - perfect, as Rosemary Clooney’s hit (‘Just make-a with a big bambino / It’s like a vino...’) dates from 1954, the very year in which Edward’s Boys’ Director and onlie begetter Perry Mills sets this production - not only was Hawkins’ singing, including high up, quite wonderful, his dance was amazing.

 To mix earnestness with sensuality, high spirits with tenderness, as he did, is a pretty remarkable dramatic achievement. Quite simply, he’s got it.

Pascal Vogiaridis as a bookish dupe

Hawkins’ Oriana takes it upon herself, more empathisingly than cruelly, to tease the hopeless Gondarino: You are no image, though you be as hard as marble. Daniel Wilkinson’s evocation of the misogynistic Gondarino was a plum of parody. The staring eyes, the screwed-up mouth, the looks of triumph every time anything surfaces to support his distaste, all veiled a rather sad, sympathetic obsessive.

One ached to cure him of his illness, his ague, for so it is portrayed. What I missed - or what Beaumont doesn’t quite make plain - is an analysis of his fretful ailment. We know a little of his history. But to sustain a play, or a large part of it, Gondarino needs variety, and perhaps we were a little short on that. Yet Wilkinson’s was a joyously entertaining performance, packed with funny moments; side-splittingly squirming when teased: a hopeless case.

Oriana aside, there were plenty of teasers around. Among those were Ben Clarke and Dominic Howden, two young Edward’s Boys stalwarts. Clarke could not hope to match the pathos of his Hebe in Galatea, the late soliloquy so endlessly touching.

But he, both of them, have progressed to make a sound job as the Duke’s smug and sleazy acolytes. A jump further up was Finlay Hatch’s Duke, who seemed to slip easefully into the role, a believable and at times domineering capo, providing a rather matey twosome with Pocknell’s manipulative Count, (‘It is so rare a thing to be honest among you women’), sharing their ‘cavalier’ approach to the opposite sex: when these two were onstage, the ante got upped. Never mind the spies: with this Sforza offshoot, life felt like one glorious plot.

The evening was a feast of the wigmaker’s, or wig-fitter’s, art: from Brenda Leedham, Alistair Campbell (Intelligencer 2) and Adam Hardy we were treated to a Fellini-quality blonde in Waters’ Julia, outrageous splurges of colour or monochrome for the other women, and a miracle of hairstyling for Hawkins’ Oriana. Julia’s garb was pure cinema italiana, and Oriana’s likewise. But even Francissina (Felix Crabtree), grumpily mastering the tart’s art, or Abhi Gowdha, as the tetchy, long-suffering waiting-woman, if they observed their elders closely, may have something to offer the company anon.

Daniel Power’s Lazarillo all but walked away with the show. Half crackers, a self-appointed gourmand, source of a large proportion of the fishy jokes and risqué double-entendres which pepper the play.

The staring eyes suggested an escapee froFinlay Hatch  and Jack Hawkins m some culinary lunatic asylum, and his postures - an ability to inflate and deflate himself like an errant beanbag - mixed with the look of a dribbling tramp, yet given by Beaumont the most expressive, almost hyperpoetic lines of all, so as to emerge as an acute commentator, a mix of Brideshead’s Anthony Blanche and a benign version of that eloquent misanthrope, Thersites (from Troilus and Cressida).

Finlay Hatch as the a rakish but capable Duke of Milan and Jack Hawkins as the shrewd, unimpeachable Oriana

Power also sometimes played the same visual card once too often. But no matter: this was a delicious creation, blissfully outrageous, wonderfully conceived, soaring away on his own tangents, and ably directed. 

But this is Edward’s Boys. There may be school plays up and down the country, but surely few come within yards of the professionalism, the bravado and the ingenuity of this unruly posse of superbly-drilled boys. By any standards, adult or youthful, this was a masterclass in how to act, how to speak and how to present even in the near-total absence of a set. In the case of guitarist Maninder Dhami and one vocalist from the acting ensemble it was also a demonstration of how to make striking and affecting music.

Near the end of this ‘bewildering tour-de-force of tragi-comic, self-parody writing’ the production built to an astonishing climax, or rather a positive whirl of climaxes, as each plot and sub-plot seems to grow to an almost Mozart-like conclusion.

This was a dénouement of real class, as befitted a staging of almost incessant originality. It did not stop there. You can almost always tell a star-quality production by the calibre of its curtain calls. Here, characters poured from every orifice in a kind of whirling pastiche of the highly effective street scene at the start, ending up in a massive huddle. Edward’s boys don’t stop acting. They just go on delivering till they drop.

Roderic Dunnett


Edward's Boys appear in France this month as part of the Year of Shakespeare festival organised by the University of Montpellier. 

22nd March: Collège de l’Assomption, Montpellier

23rd March: Maison des chœurs, Montpellier

24th March: Sortie Ouest, Béziers 

Edward's Boys

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