RSC and Hull Truck Theatre
From 31 March 2017 to 29 April 2017
Review by Colin Davison
It took approximately 55 seconds for the first wave of laughter to roll around the audience, and it carried on more or less until the end of this brilliant, wild, satirical comedy.
Writer Richard Bean, creator of One Man, Two Guvnors and Toast, was once a stand-up comic, and his latest play is stuffed with great one-liners. Like the former, it tells of a man trying to serve two masters; like the latter, it’s set in his home town, ‘ull, that cultured city “unencumbered by ‘ills.”
This joint production with Hull Truck Theatre is set in 1642, on the eve of the Civil War, when messengers arrive for Beverley MP Sir John Hotham from King Charles I and from Parliament, both offering him £1,000 to deliver the local arsenal into their hands.
Sir John, with echoes of another cowardly, fat knight, decides to accept both, with results fatal and farcical. As the servant Connie, played with a simple but smarter-than-that-lot Yorkshire charm by Laura Elsworthy, explains, the piece starts with the ending—his execution. So the wonderful Mark Addy’s Sir John appears as a severed head, and things don’t get much better. For if he thinks he’s in the whatsit then, for his closing scene he is wearing a commode, slightly used. No, I won’t explain.
Our hero, owner of hounds, a pet snake and 17 children, rubs along merrily, insulting his fifth wife, Caroline Quentin’s Lady Sarah, until the imminent arrival of the King’s men—“Sod ‘em. Tomorrah?”—threatens to expose his double treachery.
The cash is secretly needed to marry off dim daughter Frances, a suitably daffy Sarah Middleton, not to mention distinctly agile. For while they are rolling in the aisles, the thought of her dream lover sends her rolling into them, landing on this occasion in the lap of a schoolgirl who modestly adjusted Miss Elsworthy’s now revealing gown. Cue more laughter and applause.
This being the RSC, there was much fun to be had at that institution’s raison d’etre. Frances is reading Romeo, she declares. “And Juliet?” asks Jordan Metcalfe’s Prince James, eager to ingratiate himself. “I don’t know,” she confesses. “I’ve just started it.”
The cast are tremendous throughout—the more ridiculous the farce the straighter they play it, Asif Khan as son Jack, whose sword is sharper and readier than his wits, Pierro Niel-Mee as son Durand, who out-yellows Malvolio as a fluffy yellow chicken. (Did I mention the piece’s profound deeper meaning? No?)
The play sags only momentarily in the second half, but overall the show is a great example of writer, director Phillip Breen and designer Max Jones working inventively together—the 102-year-old retainer kept on a hook in the corner, the gloriously obscene bed large enough to host a Roman orgy or a significant battle of the Civil War.
And at the end, music director, guitarist and singer Phill Ward leads the company in another of his stirring protest songs. So we got to the politics after all.