Mother Clap's Molly House

Mark Ravenhill

Lyttelton, Royal National Theatre

(2001)

Review by Philip Fisher

Mark Ravenhill has built his reputation on the back of a series of uncompromising plays that take gay themes as their main driving force. He has set out to shock audiences as is apparent from the title and subject matter of his most successful play, Shopping and F***ing.

Mother Clap’s Molly House, which is his first play at RNT, looks at similar issues around gay life in London but takes a very new angle as it is largely set in the London of the early eighteenth century. The director, Nicholas Hytner, has worked on historical plays for the National before, most notably The Madness of King George. He does a good job in keeping the period feel and effortlessly moving the cast from that time to the present day and back. In this he is helped by the wonderful costumes of Nicky Gillibrand and a set that resembles the inside of a ship, designed by Giles Cadle. He also uses his cast as a singing chorus to move the action along between scenes.

This play seems a little gentler and funnier than Ravenhill’s previous work although his trademark buggery scene still makes an appearance. He treats his characters with more affection and, at times, the play is reminiscent of the work of Jonathan Harvey.

The tale that is related is of a poor, ignorant widow, superbly played by Deborah Findlay. At the start of the play, she loses her husband, Iain Mitchell, who is very funny as both the repentant lover of many, who dies of lust, and as a kinky photographer.

Dear Mrs. Tull is at her wit’s end as she tries to understand numbers that jumble before her eyes. She is persuaded by her gentle apprentice to keep the tally-shop going. This produces fancy dress that is particularly favoured by whores and their customers.

She seems to have all of the makings of a harder-nosed business(wo)man than her husband but is undone by her high sense of morality. This is tested when a far from innocent virgin up from the country, played by Danielle Tilley (who later becomes a heavily studded gangster’s moll - "another day, another piercing"), wishes to have an abortion on economic grounds. Tilley, along with Paul J. Medford as a lisping Eros in tight, white leather knickerbockers, are the pick of the supporting cast.

As our heroine is cheated by the Madam of the local establishment, her protégée, Martin (Paul Ready) falls for the very pretty Thomas (Dominic Cooper). They take a fancy to the clothing on sale and much to the owner’s shock; start to wear the women’s clothes. They thus become the Mollies of the title.

In no time at all, Mrs. Tull has spotted a gap in the market and converted a women’s clothes shop to a men’s one. This is a great financial success and she soon arranges parties on the premises and lets rooms, if required. She is adopted by her Mollies and becomes the eponymous Mother Clap.

Ravenhill uses jumps from these scenes to their equivalent in the present day - gay fetish parties. The effect is heightened as several actors tellingly double across the centuries. This helps the allegory of the eighteenth century gay awakening to explain the lives of their twenty-first century counterparts.

Ravenhill succeeds in shocking his audience while at the same time tenderly showing the conundrum of the monogamous who love the polygamous and vice versa. This portrayal of love and despair might be the greatest achievement of this play.

The two parts of the play fit together well. The modern day scenes are archetypical Mark Ravenhill while the historical part shows him in a new light. This is far more ambitious than his previous work and, as befits the large stage, the scale is much grander.

The decision of the National to stage a play that will be distasteful to many members of its regular audiences is brave and to be applauded. Mark Ravenhill has generally done them proud by writing a good play (although some of the love scenes are a little cloying) that should prove popular with his fans, especially those with broad minds.