Review: Foul Pages
Image: Hope Theatre
Mary, Countess of Pembroke - Clare Bloomer
Peg, her maid - Olivia Onyehara
Chop, a dog - James King
Alex, an actor - Lewis Chandler
Rob, an actor - Thomas Bird
Will, a poet - Ian Hallard
Ed, his brother - Greg Baxter
James, a king - Tom Vanson
Mears, his man - Jack Harding
It's 1603, the plague is ravaging London, scattering the court to the rural countryside of Wiltshire and delaying the coronation of the soon to be King James I.
In this outrageous comedy, while actors rehearse, despite backstage squabbles and sexual politics, Shakespeare and the Countess of Pembroke struggle with the rewrites of 'As You Like it' which must appeal to the new king's merciful nature and seduce him into releasing the condemned Sir Walter Raleigh.
A fruity farce full of scandalous secrets, backstage betrayals and lusty liaisons.
You think you know your Shakespeare? ... Think again!
Following five critically acclaimed and award-winning in-house productions, The Hope Theatre (Fringe Theatre of the Year nominee, The Stage Awards 2016) presents the world premiere of FOUL PAGES by Robin Hooper (Ex Literary Manager of the Royal Court and Paines Plough).
Directed by Matthew Parker; The Hope's Off West End award-winning Artistic Director, it follows Matthew's hugely successful productions of LOVESONG OF THE ELECTRIC BEAR (winner of 2 Off West End Awards; transferred to West End 2015), SEA LIFE (4 Off West End Award nominations), STEEL MAGNOLIAS (Winner of 2 Break A Leg Critics Choice Awards inc Best Off West End Production), HER ACHING HEART (Best Play, Spy In The Stalls Awards and 3 Off West End Award nominations) and BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE (2 Off West End Award nominations and 3 Break A Leg Nominations).
After a 'glorious' reign just shy of 45 years, Queen Elizabeth I's monarchical powers (and, presumably, her huge collection of posh frocks) were handed on to scotsman James I in 1603.
At that time, William Shakespeare was still writing his plays in London and would have been well aware of the change of power, and the change of fortune that might be following in its wake, as new tastes and attitudes had to be catered for.
Times were nasty in the early 17th century - plague ravaged the capital, driving those who could afford to live elsewhere to seek shelter in the backwaters of England.
It's no surprise, then, that this new play by Robin Hooper is located not in the capital but on an estate in Wiltshire.
The Hope Theatre has a relatively small acting space which doesn't always afford designers the opportunity to show off their skills in the way they might like.
But designer Rachael Ryan effectively manages to squeeze in to this compact space the panelled wall of a kind of baronial hall, that neatly lends a touch of historic realism and atmosphere to the setting.
If you've stopped-off to read the synopsis, you might be anticipating hearing of a riot of comedic farce, but to my mind at least there's actually more drama than mirth here, even if there are some humorous moments and elements.
James King as Chop - photo by LHPhotoshots
One of those is certainly the presence among the cast of James King's Chop, a talking dog, who sports a wagging tail, as well as a ruff.
The basic storyline (which contains historically accurate details) is that the Countess of Pembroke's friend (or, more likely, lover) Walter Raleigh has been imprisoned in the Tower of London by King James.
Wanting to obtain Raleigh's pardon and release, the Countess decides to put on an entertainment to appease the King.
Cue William Shakespeare and his band of merry players who are sent for to perform a play.
It's not all plain sailing, though, for the successful playwright as he has to face an examination of his script for As You Like It by the Countess, herself one of the notable writers of her day with a reputation for poetry (rivalling Shakespeare's) and literary patronage.
And the patron wants to go as far as changing the title to 'As You do', or even 'As If'.
We also discover an all-male band of largely gay actors whose rivalries and jealousies about who should play the leading role spill over into violence, resulting in similarly violent retribution from the King's bodyguard, Mears, even if it's tempered by a modicum of compassion.
In the first half of the play, short snippets of dialogue and numerous scene changes accompanied by some energetic and abrasive music, have a rather unsettling effect, and by the mid-point I wondered just where the play was headed.
But it pays to be patient as things begin the fall into place later, with the piece becoming more emotionally and dramatically satisfying as the plot develops.
A mixture of old and new in the costume department proves more than sufficient to suggest the times, with ruffs equally visible alongside denim and ripped jeans.
Matthew Parker's fluent direction achieves winning characterisations from a hard-working cast, especially in the sometimes humorous and at times rather sad interactions between the company of endearing young actors.
Ian Hallard (Will) and Clare Bloomer (Countess) - photo by LHPhotoshots
Ian Hallard impresses as Shakespeare, confidently unruffled by the interference of his patron or the irritating machinations within his fractious cast.
And Clare Bloomer successfully convinces as the changeable Countess who wrestles to resolve her conflicting emotional anxieties about her 'friend' Raleigh and her literary pretensions.
Though Foul Pages is hardly a raucous historical farce, it does have some suitably off-beat moments.
But it's in the more dramatic junctures where we find conflicting obsessions and ambition playing-out, set in the context of ever-watchful and shifting authority, that the real interest lies and proves enjoyably stimulating.
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ActDrop listing for Hope Theatre
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