There are not many evenings when I leave the theatre in a high state of excitement, but this glorious production of Thomas Dekker’s 17th century romp had so much going for it, from inspired acting to exquisitely balanced direction, that quite frankly I felt like throwing my critical cap over the nearest windmill and shouting from the rooftops. This is theatre at its brilliant best.
Everything comes together in this gorgeous evening, from the cut of the men’s doublets to the French caps worn by the women, where a tiny pearl falls from a ruby onto an actress’s forehead, indicating her character has become a social success, moving from cheap London lodgings to become the wife of the Lord Mayor of London, an occasion for rejoicing as Dick Whittington famously discovers in seasonal pantos up and down the land.
Any play by Dekker is a rarity in today’s theatre. Therefore our first thanks go to Greg Doran, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s artistic director. With laudable insight into what makes wonderful theatre, Mr Doran has made this whole thing happen, and here it is playing to delighted audiences in a season distinguished by other memorable projects where you feel happy to endorse Arts Council spending for once.
The story is simple. Parents disapprove of Rose’s marriage to Rowland Lacey. Her father, Sir Roger Oatley whisks her away to a country house and Lacy is sent away to the army (an army which is a disgraceful, ill-equipped collection of totally unsuitable recruits (something Essex was confronted with when Elizabeth 1 sent him to quell the rebels in Ireland – Dekker knew his political history).
But alongside this predictable bit of love interest is the story of a band of poor shoemakers in a back street (excellent comedy from Joel Maccormack as Ferk) where the employer is Simon Eyre ( David Troughton hilarious in his pretentious absurdities). Lacy (Josh O’Connor) who has learned the trade in the Low Countries, joins the shoemakers and claims to be Dutch ( O’Connor’s cod Dutch accent is one of the joys of a joyful evening).
However, as Eyre prospers, he moves up into well-heeled government circles and his raucous wife (the hugely comic Vivien Parry) fusses along beside him, assuming a fake genteel accent as her farthingale and his girth grows wider by the minute.
In a rollercoaster evening the fun grows thick and fast as Eyre hustles his way to Lord Mayor with quite clearly every actor giving his or her all to make it work. But, under Phillip Breen’s carefully thought out direction, there is a moment of reflection. A shoemaker, Ralph Damport (a wonderfully delicate performance by Daniel Boydin) returns from the war, crippled with his leg in a sling and half blind. It is Dekker’s brilliant take on the horrors of war and tilts at those who would hurt us with their glittering verbal bravado, something which Shakespeare ignores in, say, the bombast of Henry V.
Ralph finds his wife, assuming him dead, is engaged to another man. The moment when this innocent man stands alone in a spotlight watching his wife and then her joy which transcends what Ralph has become, is one of the most poignant things I have seen in years.
This is theatre where every penny of the ticket money is well spent and where something memorable and fine will always stay in the memory.
Until March 7.