The Roaring Girl
by Thomas Dekker & Thomas Middleton
Royal Shakespeare Company
Directed by Jo Davies
The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Saturday 17th May 2014, 13.30
Joe Bannister – Sebastian Wengrave
Ian Bonar – Jack Dapper
Peter Bray – Goshawk
Colin Anthony Brown – Sir Davy Dapper
Faye Castelow – Mary Fitzallard
Keir Charles – Laxton
Liz Crowther – Mistress Tiltyard
Lisa Dillon – Moll
Geoffrey Freshwater – Ralph Trapdoor
Mark Holgate – Gull
Lizzie Hopley – Mrs Gallipot
Joan Iyiola – Moll’s Maid
Tony Jayawardena – Mr Openwork
Christopher Middleton – Mr Tiltyard/Neatfoot
Michael Moreland – Cutlass
Ken Nwosu – Hangar
Ian Redford – Sir Guy Fitzallard
David Rintoul – Sir Alexander Wengrave
Timothy Speyer – Mr Gallipot
Harvey Virdi – Mistress Openwork
The Roaring Girl was written in 1611, and gives its title to the RSC season of plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries at the Swan Theatre. They are all plays with a strong female protagonist, none more powerful than Moll Cutpurse in the play that launched the season, The Roaring Girl. Moll Cutpurse was a real person (see link), aka Mary Frith, who liked to dress up as a man in Jacobean England, and may have been the first female to appear on stage then, at the Fortune Theatre.
QUOTE: In 1605, she leaped upon the stage of London’s Fortune Theatre, dressed, of course, as a man, and puffing heavily on a pipe. She loudly sang bawdy songs while strumming a lute. She regaled the raucous crowd with lascivious stories until watchmen arrived to place her under arrest. The charge was a minor one, that of a female wearing the garb of a man. She was fined and released. UNQUOTE
The comedy by Dekker and Middleton reflects on the position of women, hence its prominence in this season, and the casting of Lisa Dillon in the lead role (see Taming Of The Shrew RSC, and Birthday, Royal Court, reviews). In the light of Conchita Wurst winning Eurovision 2014, girls with facial hair becomes the collective. This play opened weeks earlier. It’s playing in repertory with Arden of Faversham (see review) which means mainly the same cast, which I always find a plus.
This version is set in the 1890s, which works, with the addition of anachronistic modern beat group backing and interventions, and a bit of rapping. I liked the setting. I loved Lisa Dillon’s lead role, in fact, I loved all the acting performances.
Mary Fitzallard (Faye Castelow) dressed up as a man too by Moll Cutpurse (Lisa Dillon)
But the play … I see the attraction of the Moll Cutpurse lead role. It has something to say and the programme has all the timelines on suffragettes to prove it. Basically, I think the play is a poor piece of drama. Thumbs down to Dekker and Middleton. There’s a reasonable basic plot. Sebastian Wengrave wants to marry the poor Mary Fitzallard. Because her dowry is meagre, his dad, Sir Alexander Wengrave forbids the marriage. Sebastian hatches a plan. He will pretend he’s in love with Moll Cutpurse, and then his dad will be relieved to get rid of a transvestite daughter-in-law and marry Sebastian to Mary. But his dad, Sir Alexander Wengrave, has his own plan to get rid of Moll Cutpurse from his son’s affections. He hires a crook, Ralph Trapdoor, to help him “stitch Moll up” by planting some valuables prominently in the hope that she will steal them.
If only they’d stuck with that story. But Dekker and Middleton introduced a whole bank of confusing subplots involving various “gallants” (friends of Sebastian) wooing the wives of local tradesmen.
Sir Alexander Wengrave (David Rintoul) with Raplph Trapdoor (Geoffrey Freshwater)
The Gallants: Laxton (Keir Charles), Dapper (Ian Bonar), Goshawk (Peter Bray)
Some people read the plays first. I think theatre plays should work on their own without prior knowledge, and I lost the thread on this one so often that first I got confused, then I got bored. My companion felt the same. In the interval, we heard at least three couples complaining that they could not follow the plot / place characters. The main plot gets swamped by the subplots, each of which is funny in its own way, involving the attempts of the gallants to seduce the wives of various tradesmen: Tiltyard, a feather-seller; Openwork, a tailor and Gallipot an apothecary, or here mainly a tobacconist. Look at those two last sentences. Having them in the program me would have helped no end.
The second half was better. I always praise the RSC programmes, but this one is at fault in a major way. The synopsis ignores the subplots and leaves us floundering. I don’t want to know the history of suffragettes, I want pointers and guides to this production. The directors’ concept would be good. It’s the first useless RSC program me I’ve seen too. If you’re going, don’t bother to throw away £4 on it. Check Wiki, get a synopsis of the play and pick up the free cast list.
At 2 hours 25 minutes, it felt very long indeed. There was first rate acting going on in front of us, great interchanges, but it just did not stick together. The plot is meandering, unfocussed, and the direction failed to resolve the different threads. The central plot (and Moll) disappeared totally for long periods … basically a poorly plotted play by the writers. We needed to see more Moll who lit up the stage on every appearance. As she bookends the play as an epilogue and prologue I would have kept her on stage watching some stuff she was not involved in. There was so much funny stuff going on, so many great individual performances, but it was like comedy trying too hard: far too few laughs were extracted from the audience. None of it was the actors’ fault. It’s the play. I think The Telegraph’s mean two stars is probably right overall, no, a tad too mean, but three is generous. I think a ruthless excision of 20 minutes without removing any business at all, just text, would improve it. I’d take out an entire subplot. Though the closing dance was certainly five star stuff, with everyone (a) dancing in character (b) breaking out and doing the unexpected.
Lisa Dillon rocks out
The rock band were years away from the 1890s, with Lisa Dillon appearing playing guitar and singing in front of an all-girl band: drums, bass guitar, sax, trumpet. The drumhead announced them as The Cutpurses. In the final dance, the cast members added trombone, tuba and lead guitar (impressive guitar solo from Ian Bonar, who played a gallant, Jack Dapper). At one point, Moll and Trapdoor picked up microphones and did a semi-rap to drums and bass backing. They really went for it too. Lisa Dillon earlier had to pose as a French music teacher and play the”viol” which was a double bass, which she played while singing. From her finger pressure, which is really difficult and requires calloused fingertips, I’d say she learned the double bass numbers for the role, but it’s nevertheless impressive: double bass has no frets to tell you where the notes are, and playing bass and singing is like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. It shows how much work was put in by her … it’s daunting to play a difficult instrument in front of a large audience while singing in character.
Sebastian Wengrave (Joe Bannister) with Moll and the bass viol
There are positives throughout, all due to great acting. Driving home, we agreed Lisa Dillon would be the ultimate Puck and Christopher Middleton’s hilarious Neatfoot (the butler) means he would be a brilliant Jeeves. Timothy Speyer and Lizzie Hopley as Mr and Mrs Gallipot were hilarious … her facial asides to the audience are great stuff.
Laxton (Keir Charles) is after seducing Mistress Gallipot (Lizzie Hopley)
In the end: More Moll needed. Lisa Dillon confirms her status as one of the best actors on the contemporary stage. Lose at least one subplot altogether. Make sure the story threads hang together (they don’t). Write a decent programme synopsis. In spite of the criticism, there’s enough stagecraft and fine comic acting to make it well-worth seeing. But as they used to say about all sorts of things, Dekker and Middleton “ain’t Shakespeare.”
As one of the shopkeepers being gulled by the gallants is a tobacconist, it’s not gratuitous. A cigarette is a great prop for Moll in the prologue above. And by the lack of odor, I assume these are stage water vapor cigarettes.