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

The real history boys

Joe Pocknell, a Cupid with a golden tongue and a cheeky presence with sundry arboreals behind

Joe Pocknell, a Cupid with a golden tongue and a cheeky presence with sundry arboreals behind


Edward's Boys

The Dream Factory, Warwick


WE KNOW virtually as a fact that in Shakespeare and Ben Jonson’s time, all the principal girls’ and women’s parts were taken by boys, or at the most, older teens. The Lord Chamberlain’s men, later the King’s men, relied on such young, high-voiced talent.

Gertrude, Goneril, Rosalind, Katharina, Cordelia – these were the plums in the pudding, the feathers in the caps of boy starlets like Solomon Pavy, whose early death Jonson commemorated in an exquisite epitaph; or Alexander Cooke, who was among the Shakespearian marvels of the age and stage: much talked about, much gazed upon.

But there were, especially late in Elizabeth I’s reign, troupes composed of all-boy casts. The Children of Paul’s (choristers or ex-choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral) or The Children of the Chapel (formerly of the Chapel Royal; later of the Blackfriars) were preeminent among boys’ companies at the turn of the 17th century – the Elizabethan-Jacobean era. Many went on to act as grown-ups too. Only with the demise of Cromwell and Charles II’s accession did women come to play the fashionable and saucy roles in Restoration Comedy and Tragedy.

Several of the companies were connected with schools – Merchant Taylors being one. But a few years into James I’s rule the once-blossoming tradition died out. A big cheer, then, for Edward’s Boys, scions of what was almost certainly Shakespeare’s own school - his father being an influential worthy of the town - King Edward VI Grammar School, Stratford (which has just admitted girls to its Sixth Form) who with careful nursing, directing and chaperoning have earned a name today, rightly, as one of the most striking young acting companies in the realm.

Not only are they a terrific team – an instance of very high quality, intelligent school acting at the least, but really rather more than that: tip top, one should say, more like county or England standard in a sport; but they have a gift for serving up repertoire virtually nobody else ever does.

Poet John Lyly, author of the play Galatea, which they have just paraded in Warwick and at Shakespeare’s Globe on London’s Thames South Bank, was one of the key writers who penned for the boys’ companies before their enforced temporary demise in the 1590s, and briefest revival as the new century turned Jacobean. He is one of their valuable ‘finds’.

But there are others. Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage surfaced last autumn. Middleton (A Mad World My Masters, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside) and another children’s theatre specialist, John Marston, with Antonio’s Revenge, plus before that part of The Dutch Courtesan), have both featured.

They have Beaumont and Fletcher in their sights, and the long-lived Homer translator George Chapman; plus from a generation later, The City Wit (or The Woman Wears the Breeches - was it ever otherwise?) by Richard Brome – Jonson’s former manservant (‘I had you for a servant once, Dick Brome; / And you perform'd a servant's faithfull parts; / Now, you are got into a nearer room, / Of fellowship, professing my old arts’) - which sounds huge fun, and requires a cracking boy singer for a dozen perky numbers.


The aptly (and winningly) named Edward’s Boys, their vigorous productions planned, led and directed with inspiration and a clever, witty dramatic sense by Perry Mills, Deputy Headmaster with pastoral responsibilities (formerly Head of English and Expressive Arts), and designed by artist David Troughton (whose haunted, leafy boy-replicated poster for Galatea like a medieval Green Man reborn, looks absolutely stunning), have been praised to bits by the high and mighty, not least those in the RSC, who should know.

The boys’ appearance at Shakespeare’s Globe says it all – after four regional showings during March, and one in April at The Dream Factory, Playbox Theatre’s classy venue located at Aylesford School, Warwick, they took their terrific latest pitch, Lyly’s Galatea, to the Sam Wanamaker Theatre which adjoins the Globe and is named after its great benefactor. Warwick was a bit thinly attended – some more flyer publicity might help. Let’s hope the Globe was packed.

They deserve it. Word has preceded them: they have already been asked back to stage Ben Jonson’s The Epicoene (or The Silent Woman) in 2016 – a play in which one of the greatest JacobeanGirls together. Pascal Vogiaridis as Phillida and Charlie Waters as Galatea, boys playing girls who are in turn disguised as boys . . boy actors, Nathan Field, made his name. ‘The actors,’ says the website blurb, ‘display a high degree of initiative and ownership of their work.’ I think that puts it rather well. It’s exactly what comes across in these productions. Talent. Collaboration. Support. Understanding. A desire to adopt it, cosset it and make it their own. 

Girls together. Pascal Vogiaridis as Phillida and Charlie Waters as Galatea, boys playing girls who are in turn disguised as boys . . .

But back to John Lyly (1553-1606). This is the Stratford company’s third stab at him, after chunks/extracts from Endymion (2009) and Mother Bombie, mounted in 2010. Galatea, acted at Greenwich Palace before Her Majesty, probably in the year of the Spanish Armada, on New Year’s Day 1588 (Prologue: ‘Your Majesty's5judgment and favor are our sun and shadow, the one coming of your deep wisdom, the other of your wonted grace’), is a most remarkable play, deemed probably his best.

The story is witty: Greek myth invades rural Lincolnshire. Two yokel fathers (Georges Ellingham and Hodson: the latter, despite an awful beard here, has made something of a girl-boy hit already as Princess Katherine in Henry V and Anna - Purcell’s Belinda - in Dido, teething as Livia in an earlier Lyly), resort to disguising their daughters as boys, since Diana (the spectacular Daniel Wilkinson) has demanded that every quinquennium the prettiest local teen be sacrificed – devoured by a sea-monster - in honour of her virginal obsession.

Cupid, rebuffed when trying it on with one of them, makes all Diana’s supposedly chaste, dinky bow-wielding followers fall in love, predictably with the girl-boys, who meanwhile (despite being both boys playing girls playing boys) fall in love with one another. Yum yum.

It sounds like a recipe for comedy not that far from the quick-change nightmare of Coventry’s latest Spanish Golden Age Season (Don Gil of the Green Breeches). The acting – from all, but especially from a chosen few, is absolutely scrumptious. Charlie Waters as Galatea, quite a wee chappie now in his third year or more, had some difficulty imprinting authority on his role, though not character. ‘Blush, Galatea, that must frame thy affection fit for thy habit, and therefore be thought immodest because thou art unfortunate! Thy tender years cannot dissemble this deceit, nor thy sex bear it. Oh, would the gods had made me as I seem to be, or that I might safely be what I seem not!’ Pathos from the start. And again, ‘All the blood in my body would be in my face, if he should ask me (as the question among men is common), "Are you a maid?" ‘ Should ‘milk-white’ Galatea be a cheeky chappie? Maybe not.

But Waters can do boys, having played the crucial tavern, then soldier, then corpse Boy role – no mean part - in 2012’s thumpingly good Henry V (to judge by Gavin Birkett’s revealing video; you can get all or most of Edward’s Boys’ productions on DVD from In a way this was a play with a Galatea-shaped hole, but when it came to the ‘boys’ falling for one another, and mutually swearing ‘never to love a woman’, Charlie W rather triumphed. Sex and violence is part of this school company’s sales pitch. Well, it certainly worked.


The demure one is Pascal Vogiaridis, who pulled off Hermes in Marlowe’s Dido play, and who brought an almost unearthly innocence to Phillida, Galatea’s little supposed male chum (Galatea: ‘What dread riseth in my mind! I fear the boy to be as I am, a maiden.’ Phillida: ‘Tush, it cannot be; his voice shows the contrary’). Pascal shines at verse speaking, and prose too; and my, it tells here. ‘It is a pretty boy and a fair. He might well have been a woman, but because he is not, I am glad I am; for now, under the color of my coat, I shall decipher the follies of their kind.’ His moves seemed almost frozen with terror, which if I’d expected to be sliced up, Iphigeneia-style, I might have felt inclined to too. There were aspects to his acting and persona which made me feel that sometime hence, in a Diana-type role, he might possibly hold a stage rather well. Not quite yet, but soon.

There’s a naughty final mix-up to cap this production. The girls reappear not as maidens, but as ongoing lovesick boys. Permissible? Of course. In a boys’ school. 

  The real giggle of the production – there has to be one – was Joe Pocknell’s Cupid. Cheeky and winsome and pert and, now disguised as a nymph, unashamedly and eye-catchingly sexy (a real Puck, he is a dab hand at devising knowing winks to the audience, using the device latterly rather too much), he shone: this was a glorious offering, a beacon of effortlessly naughty stage-hogging.

Pocknell has progressed from ‘soldiers, ambassadors, etc.’ in Henry V to playing – you guessed it – Cupid in Dido, Queen of Carthage. So, having so spectacularly cocked things up there and fatally wounded the Punic queen, Midsummer Night’s Dream-style, he already has quite a fine pedigree in erotic high jinks (‘I will make their pains my pastimes, and so confound their loves in their own sex that they shall dote in their desires, delight in their affections, and practice only impossibilities.’ But if Cupid’s was a delicious performance, it was above all because Joe’s verse speaking is of such an inordinately high quality. There’s the pedigree. He projects. He enunciates.

This quality of speech, sensitivity to the spoken word, is a feature of Edward’s Boys as a whole, a prized one, as was suggested just from the enticing blocked ‘Prologue’ cosying up to the queen like Quince to Theseus and Hippolyta in the Dream, that opens Galatea, with boys interacting to form shapely, perhaps grieving, trees, in multiform imaginative poses. The ultimate auditioning test,Clowning with quality. Golden-tongued Jack Hawkins (Robin), Dick (James Williams) and Finlay Hatch (as the delightfully over-the-top Rafe) you might think. Later these weeping willows even sing. You knew from then on – and from every subsequent impeccably managed exit and entrance – that Mills’s direction was going to be hot, vital stuff.

Clowning with quality. Golden-tongued Jack Hawkins (Robin), Dick (James Williams) and Finlay Hatch (as the delightfully over-the-top Rafe)

Tragic Dido was played in 2013 by Daniel Wilkinson. If Wilkinson’s striding Diana was a model for all around of restrained, incredibly powerful acting, the eyes have it all. ‘What news have we here, ladies? Are all in love? Are Diana’s nymphs becomes Venus’s wantons?’, she snarls, and goes on, in a superbly modulated speech, mercilessly to crucify the very idea of love of boys/men. Talk about terrifying school prefect. Or doth the lady protest too much?

Watching his exquisitely Greek- or Minoan- dressed ‘girl’ acolytes scuttling silently after him, a flurry of chastened looks and swishing purple-white attire (for Diana alone this was tweaked to crimson), was simply hilarious – while Jeremy Franklin’s artfully prepared parody of a white-bearded Neptune (the sort of bombastic role Peter O’Toole relished: sea-monsters a speciality, he’d have wanted fangs as well as a trident; and ranting to the last (‘I will be here at the hour, and show as great cruelty as they have done craft, and well shall they know that Neptune should have been entreated, not cozened’), and David Fairbairn’s late-introduced Venus (again, the same part Fairbairn depicted in Marlowe’s Dido); true to form, the two antithetical goddesses have a stand-up row, à la Euripides Hippolytus) gave evidence of what Edward’s older and maturer actors could – and surely will – achieve. The early training beams through.

However some of the younger, stag-chasing virgins were really rather excellent. Take the well-spoken James West, for me a marked success as Ramia ‘You shall see’, sneers Eurota (jealous Isaac Sergeant), ‘that Ramia has also bitten on a love-leaf’: ‘You shall weave samplers all night…All the stories that are in Diana's arras which are of love you must pick out with your needle, and in that place sew Vesta with her nuns and Diana with her nymphs. How like you this, Cupid?. Or Ben Clarke, quite a find as an Ariel-like, curly-locked, chatterbox Telusa: another competent verse speaker - Virgins' hearts, I perceive, are not unlike cotton trees, whose fruit is so hard in the bud that it soundeth like steel, and, being ripe, poureth forth nothing but wool’, whose aching second speech (‘Would Telusa were nobody’) urged audience tears and approached the near-perfect.

And most of all the littl’un (I think the only Year 8), Tristan Barford as Larissa. He has Pocknell’s problem – overdoing a flick of the head or (here) knowing look without really varying it. But I thought him – potentially – yet another pretty useful find on the part of the producer. Worth moulding.


There were worthy astronomers (Ed Beighton in pompous, terrific Brummie mode: ‘Dost thou not know that I was calculating the nativity of Alexander’s great horse’?) and alchemists (Jasper Durbin), mariners (a rather witty Lawrence Barber) and gloomy pontificating augurs (Hamish de Nett) with whom Lyly fills out the cast or tarts up the tale.

But the solo ‘boy’ role I would pick out was Peter (Oliver Lloyd), the absconding Alchemist’s boy, who like Vogiaridis has a rather special presence – not utilised quite as fully as he might - and speaks lines as they should be spoken. I never quite worked out what Peter’s function was (apart from to lament in a style that brings Lyly close to Jonson: ‘What a life do I lead with my master! Nothing but blowing of bellows, beating of spirits, and scraping of crosslets. It is a very secret science, for none almost can understand the language of it: sublimation, almigation, calcination, rubification, incorporation, circination, cementation, albification, and fermentation…’), but he brought with him a pathos and a feeling of patent honesty that I guiltily found disconcerting. Great stuff.

But where were the Touchstone, the Dogberry, the Stephano and Trinculo of this three-level bucolic comedy? Enter a deliciously crazy trio – triad, I might call them, for they seemed an honest, happy-go-lucky rustic lot, yet seeking the main chance and up to no good. You could not but fall for them.

Though it’s tempting to praise to the skies the insuppressible Robin (‘Ah, Robin, gentle Robin’) of young Jack Hawkins – a veteran of Dido, whether as ‘Trojan sailor, Carthaginian lord, attendant, waiter, choirboy, gymnast or P.E. teacher (you see how Edward’s Boys packs them in) I’m not quite sure. He can sing fabulously, in Black Country accent or no, would be a sure-fire cert for the City Wit if nature were not such a cruel sea to boys’ voices, and as a cocky wee chap would outdo any Ariel or Biondello. But while James Williams furnished an aptly rural Dick (‘…and Dick the shepherd blows his nail’), the accolades should really go to Finlay Hatch’s raffish Rafe. An hilarious character, blissfully earthy, commanding the stage, and to my mind thumpingly well played. Robin and Rafe in duet was one of the highlights of the evening.

Galatea’s music was composed by one of the boys – Sam Bridges, a jump upwards maybe from Britten (Dido) and Vaughan Williams (Henry): this was a super, imaginative, incredibly sensitive score, tinged by traditional folk (some deft pipe solos) and a range of shrewd influences, strummed or tweeted by a musicians’ quartet that delivered with a like empathy: alongside Bridges, Ben Dennes, Dominic Howden as the tragic goddess Hebe, to whom Lyly allots a speech to end all speechesManinder Dhami (a cherishably lute-like guitar, used sparingly) and Joe Woodman. With insight and originality Bridges imported – an inspired touch – an unusual, miraculous plucked or twirled percussion instrument, whose name I’ve ashamedly failed to track down despite scouring the web for it. I couldn’t find a single illustration. But it made strange sounds that might have bewitched Caliban.

Edward’s Boys’ production team is obviously utterly professional. True, a school play is a school play, and one shouldn’t overstate things. But managing and manipulating and putting onto the stage a substantial and unfamiliar text like this is a massive undertaking. In terms of smooth running, something a staging (and audiences) absolutely rely on, Galatea hit the jackpot every time.

Ben Clarke, quite a find as the chatterbox nymph, Telusa.

The costumes (Amanda Wood and team), or most of them, looked exceptionally good. I liked the hats; and the rather natty jodhpurs worn by some. Wigs were kept to a minimum (Neptune’s, like his cardboard-looking three prongs, was either a comic hit or a disaster), props - notably the afore mentioned bows, and some twee little lanterns - were generally delightful, and Troughton’s triple-door set was both serviceable and comely, though given a choice, I might have splashed out a little more on décor. There were no hitches, items and paraphernalia were seemingly in the right place, so Joe Woodman’s Stage Management team must have done its stuff too.

But sometimes at the end of a play – particularly a Greek play’s dénouement – there is a humdinger of an appearance, or apparition. In Lear it is the revelation – and deaths – of Lear and Cordelia; in Sophocles’ Oedipus, the discovery of the dead Jocasta preceding the self-blinding of her exposed-as-a-murderer son/husband (Lyly knew his Thebes: ‘I am no Oedipus, to expound riddles, and I muse how thou canst be Sphinx to utter them’, as Sergeant’s Eurota, another Wilkinson acolyte, reminds Clarke’s Telusa); in Elektra, the revelation, on the wheeled-out ekkuklema, of the slain Clytemnaestra and Aegisthus. In Wagner’s Ring, less bloodily, it is the appearance of Erda, the goddess with all-seeing wisdom and earthen knowledge.

Well, there was one here. Frontrunner for the best performance of the evening was Dominic Howden, who delivered the poignant, self-sacrificial and effectively reconciliatory peroration of the goddess Hebe, a Ganymede-like nectar-pouring cupbearer, daughter of Zeus and Hera: the deity of youth (‘prime of life’, ‘impending sexuality’, ‘burgeoning adolescence’; so, in a sense, of Edward’s Boys too.

Armed with Lyly’s sensational, Aeschylus- or Euripides-quality writing, Howden’s was a single-handed performance that absolutely mesmerised. It spoke reams. And what a massive mouthful it is. ‘Die, HebeHebe die! Woeful Hebe… accursed Hebe! Farewell the sweet delights… Farewell lifevain lifewretched life, whose sorrows are long, whose end doubtful, whose miseries certain, whose hopes innumerable, whose fears intolerable.Come Agar, thou insatiable monster of maidens’ blood and devourer of beauty’s bowels…’ (bang on cue, two trees lie on the floor to enfold, as if protect her); ‘and farewell world, thou viler monster’.

Hebe doesn’t say things by halves. It’s a monster of a speech, and one could have asked no finer utterer than Dominic Howden. Like Peter’s, this was an on the verge of breaking voice; and like an older boy treble assaying a particularly vulnerable solo, that invariably moves an audience of itself. Howden spoke almost Prospero-length lines – almost a textbook of modern-day diagnosed depression - not just beautifully, but with a bewildering courage, confidence and assurance for a young performer. If anything put the icing on the cake, he did. She did.

Roderic Dunnett


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