An evening with The RSC

Last night we sped (within the limits of the law of course!) down the M40 to Stratford-upon-Avon and more specifically the Swan Theatre to watch ‘The Roaring Girl' - the first in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s season of lesser known plays which are linked thematically by feisty female protagonists/leads.

As ever, it was a pleasure to be in the beautiful surroundings of Stratford-upon-Avon, and lit by a setting sun the riverside theatre looked especially magnificent. We climbed the steps and entered the foyer with anticipation into what appeared to be a sell out performance...

In ‘The Roaring Girl’ Lisa Dillon brings to life Moll Cutpurse a character based on the real life exploits of the titular Roaring Girl ‘Mary Frith’ – a cross-dressing, chain-smoking, former/reformed ne’er-do-well with good moral intentions.

The largely unfamiliar and bawdy comedy was written by Thomas’s Dekker and Middleton in 1611 but this production brings the action forward from Jacobean times to the foggy streets of Victorian London and to a lesser extent modern day with the insertion of Moll’s ska/jazz band ‘The Cutpurses’ who bookend scenes. At one point proceedings take a thoroughly modern twist with an Eminem style rap off with microphones, culminating in a ‘roaring’ finale involving senior citizen break dancing!

The main storyline follows that of young Sebastian who must enlist the help of Moll to fool his father Sir Wengrave, an uptight magistrate who threatens to disinherit him if he marries his true love Mary. There are multiple narratives interwoven throughout, including the exploits of Sebastian’s chums the ‘Gallants’, most prominently that of the roguish Laxton who is having an affair with Mrs. Gallipott the tobacconist’s wife; although the numerous plots are at times intricate, the comedy, performances and ambience keep things rollicking along and even if you aren’t a student of English literature I implore you to go – you will soon be enveloped in the storyline and the atmosphere of the glorious Swan Theatre.

The Swan Theatre itself is an intimate space, where the ambience is second to none. The cylindrical brickwork walls, the muted lighting, the timber framework, the winding metal staircase – it is a place where you could happily spend a very long time. For this play we were sat performance level in some very comfy upholstered seats - The layout of the theatre and the deep thrust stage allows for great interaction with the audience and this is exploited thoroughly in this production. The cast come and go through the spectators - at one point the actor playing Sir Wengrave sits down next to and engages with a gentleman in the audience. Later Moll kisses the hand of another audience member and Mrs. Gallipott engages the front row with (un) rhetorical questions. The unintended drop of a purse of money led to two adlibbed interactions with the audience; after Moll missed one throw, Lisa Dillon proclaimed "It’s been a long night" – little touches like this really kept me engaged in the proceedings.

The physical space was also well utilised, the staircase, the balcony, the stage walkways - one scene involves Moll swinging from the theatre’s chandelier (ala Adam Ant), a real downpour of rain was a highlight (if you're right of stage, front row bring some waterproofs!) and at one point a character named ‘Trapdoor’ actually emerges from his namesake.

All members of the cast had their qualities, each one giving larger than life performances – exaggerated at times to give comedic weight. Standouts for me besides Lisa Dillon as the leading lady were Lizzie Hopley and Timothy Speyer as the Gallipott’s and David Rintoud as the uptight Sir Alexander. As well as the fabulous Victorian setting, gas lamps, cobbles et al the costumes too also deserve a mention – a lot of plaid suits, tartan and the bowler hats, which became characters in their own right.

We left the theatre in high spirits, stepping into a lovely Stratford evening we all agreed that we would be back for more of the season, which continues with 'Arden of Faversham' from 6 September-2 October.

PAUL (3/9/2014)


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