Foul Pages stays at The Hope Theatre until 17th March 2018 – book your tickets here: The Hope Theatre Box Office
Guest Reviewed by G.Wood
Star rating: ****
In Foul Pages there are two moments where male characters, actors who play women, cry as a result of the same single act of brutality; both crying for different reasons, but the effect is the same; they are merely pawns in the political game that is the theatre. No matter how talented or charming or attractive they are, they are always at the mercy of the machinations around them. It strikes a bold note, especially in the current climate where the abuse of power is so in the public eye. When Alex (an impassioned Lewis Chandler) begs to hold on to the part of Rosalind, possibly Shakespeare’s greatest female creation, he stands for all the actors who pass their sell by date and are lost to the whim and fancy of their producers, benefactors, or public (I immediately thought of the hundreds, from Rose McGowan to Robert Lindsay to many other unknown talents, who fell foul of Weinstein.)
With MeToo and TimesUp, there is perhaps now hope that things are finally changing but Foul Pages, Robert Hooper’s play of political, theatrical and sexual intrigue, is a timely reminder of how much the world is driven by the ego of those who hold the power. Lady Pembroke (a nicely layered performance by Clare Bloomer) has brought Shakespeare’s Company to Wilton House to perform “As You Like It” for King James, a brave move to appeal to the King’s forgiveness and stay the execution of Sir Walter Raleigh. Through the multiple plot strands the evening at one moment takes us to laugh out loud comedy, and the next enters the realm of the high stakes thriller. The writing is both erudite and irreverent, cleverly weaving witty farce with tragedy and courtly politics in its short ninety minutes. If I had one criticism it is that Hooper sometimes pushes his scope a little too far and what starts grounded firmly in theatricality, a complete homage to the power of the word, later aspires to be more of a cinematic adventure; the writing starting to feel fuzzy with almost too many themes crowded into the rapid fire proceedings.
So it is a credit to the creative team that they pull off the evening so effectively, and keep us engaged throughout. Rachael Ryan’s designs, specifically her edgy and anachronistic costumes, create a world that feels just shy of steampunk, accentuated by a pulsing techno beat that frames the many short scenes. Matthew Parker, The Hope’s artistic director, draws us convincingly into this world, guiding us across unsteady ground with always a firm grip on the entertainment, each individual section deftly struck.
Parker is aided in this by a really sensational cast. The venue’s reputation guarantees that its in house productions never fail to draw in some quality acting, but here it surpasses even itself. So rare on the fringe to see such a large cast be so note perfect; Ian Hallard is effortless as the exasperated Shakespeare, artful manipulator of all around him (not least the comic interfering of his benefactor) but also reluctant stooge for those who hold the real power (Tom Vanson milking every moment as a King torn between his faith and his lasciviousness). Elsewhere Greg Baxter’s grounded Ed nicely compliments the simple understated hopefulness of Thomas Bird’s magnetic Rob and full credit must be given to the three perfectly judged performances that act as an outsider’s channel into this world of power politics; Olivia Onyehara sublime as the no nonsense maid Peg who both admires and is frustrated by this acting fraternity, Jack Harding nicely brooding as the bodyguard Mears trying desperately to keep some sort of balance as the events unfold, and finally James King as the dog Chop (yes, the dog). Whether it is his joyful physicality or his narrative quips, King lands every beat he is given as he moves effortlessly from the hilarious to the heartfelt.
A thoroughly engaging evening of comedy and insight, capped off with a little post curtain bonus that feels like both a nod and a glorious two fingers up to the historical form. Joyous.
Photo Credits: LHPhotoshots