Foul Pages – Hope Theatre, London

Writer: Robin Hooper

Director: Matthew Parker

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

All the World’s a stage in Robin Hooper’s new play, a bawdy romp set in 1603 when a production of As You Like It is being staged to please the newly-crowned King James I/VI.  The theatre, it seems, is the centre of everything in this tale of backstage backstabbing, political intrigue and thwarted love, all taking place under the watchful eye of a cuddly canine.

The Countess of Pembroke (Clare Bloomer) is desperate to save her former lover Sir Walter Raleigh from the axe and invites the new King (Tom Vanson) to her country pile, where she keeps dissident French Protestants hidden in the attic. She hopes that a performance of AYLI, which she has “improved” herself, will help her to encourage his leniency. The actors arrive, all of them gay, but it is explained that there were no women around in theatre companies in those days. The Countess’s lusty maid, Peg (Olivia Onyehara), has little chance of getting satisfaction from any of them.

Trouble starts when the King takes a fancy to bit part player Rob (Thomas Bird) and insists that he must play Rosalind instead of the talented and ambitious Alex (Lewis Chandler). The writer, Will (Ian Hallard), succumbs to the King’s request, much to the consternation of his actor brother Ed (Greg Baxter with a broad West Midlands accent) who has rejected Peg’s advances in favour of his pursuit of Rob. Meanwhile, the King’s kilted henchman (Jack Harding) takes a shine to Alex and could prove to be his saviour.

Matthew Parker directs these shenanigans on an often cramped stage with a light touch, throwing in some neat comedy and some oddities. Techno music and strobe lighting during scene changes feel particularly incongruous. It is very unlikely that the vain actors of 1603 would ever have been as generous as the company here by allowing scene after scene to be stolen by a dog. Chop, the Countess’s put-upon mutt, woofing, canoodling and throwing in sarcastic asides in the style of Lily Savage, is a delight and James King’s performance certainly earns at least a biscuit.

When it comes to Elizabethan (or immediately post-Elizabethan) theatre comedies, Tom Stoppard set the bar fairly high with his screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, exploring the links between theatre and life with wit and insight. It is no surprise that Hooper’s play falls short in comparison, but still it could have shown more purpose. The writer seems to have little interest in Will himself, who becomes a rather anonymous, incidental figure. Focussing primarily on the thespians’ antics, the play is mildly amusing for its 90 minutes, but, at the end, we are left thinking it to have been much ado about very little at all.

Runs until 17 March 2018 | Image: LHPhotoshots

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Bawdy romp

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