Ben Jonson, John Marston and George Chapman
RSC at the Gielgud
The final play in the RSC's Gielgud season is a bawdy comedy that changes character (and, one suspects, playwright) at the interval. At that point, it becomes a morality tale with the virtuous, however dull, bound to be victorious.
Eastward Ho starts by dividing its principal characters into two categories. The two daughters and two 'prentices of William Touchstone (Geoffrey Freshwater) exemplify extremes. One member of each pair is sweet, virtuous and very boring, while the other is ambitious, happy-go-lucky and great fun. The writers make much of this contrast and enjoy themselves, as they build up greater and greater excesses for the dissolute pair.
Amanda Drew plays the ambitious Gertrude, keen to marry her Knight, regardless of his imperfections and without having done suitable investigation to confirm his wealth. She is very much like Barbara Windsor in a Carry On film but has modelled her voice on Harry H Corbett as Steptoe's son. She marries the wonderfully named Sir Petronell Flash (Michael Matus) with the support of her mother (Claire Benedict) but much against the wishes of her cautious father.
At the same time, Francis Quicksilver (Billy Carter) the wild 'prentice has been gallivanting around town spending every penny of his own money and a fair proportion of his master's. Finally, after pushing Touchstone too far he is given the opportunity to pursue his fortune elsewhere.
Touchstone turns his attention and affections to his second, silent daughter, Mildred (Shelley Conn) and immediately offers her hand in marriage to his other apprentice, Golding (James Tucker). These two are a perfect match and, in any other comedy, would be the butt of far more humour than they suffer in this.
The first half the play ends as Sir Flash, together with Quicksilver, sends the naive Gertrude eastward in search of a castle in the air while they head west for Virginia, although they get no further than the Isle of Dogs.
Along the way, they have met a moneylender called Security, an excellent comic creation by Paul Bentall, reminiscent of Ron Moody's Fagin. whose schadenfreude is so great that he doesn't even realise when he is being cuckolded by the newly-married Knight.
Following a shipwreck which effectively takes place while the audience is being entertained by the excellent Elizabethan musicians (Mick Sands and Sianed Jones) and some of the actors in the foyer during the interval, the sodden actors reappear one by one to bring us up to date and to justify themselves.
Surprisingly, after spells in jail for the fun lovers, their release is secured by the combined efforts of Touchstone and Golding, now an Alderman. We finish up with their magnanimity rewarded by confessions and promises to do good for evermore.
The overacting of the comedy may prove a little difficult for some to take and, to a 21st century audience, the excessively moral ending will either seem refreshing or unbelievable. This does not seem to be a massive obstacle as Eastward Ho is often great fun and under the direction of Lucy Pitman-Wallace there are many good laughs and strong performances, particularly from Amanda Drew, Billy Carter and Paul Bentall.
This season which runs until late January has given London audiences a chance to sample lesser-known writings of those who followed Shakespeare and to see a "new" history play of his. They have been of variable quality but it is well worth making the effort to catch one or two.
They vary in scope from light comedy, through adventure to drama. Therefore, there should be something for all to enjoy. It is to be hoped that, in future, the RSC finds a regular London home as the thought that a season as rich as this would play in Stratford and Newcastle without making it to the capital is a very sad one. This could be Michael Boyd's first project when he takes artistic control.
Playing at the Gielgud until 25th January.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher