Friday, 18 July 2014

Theatre review: The Roaring Girl

The show that gives this year's RSC Swan season its overall title is Dekker and Middleton's The Roaring Girl, a comedy inspired by a real-life Jacobean woman nicknamed Moll Cutpurse, whose fondness for dressing in men's clothes, drinking in taverns and starting fights made her notorious. Jo Davies transfers the fictional Moll to the 1890s, and a Victorian London obsessed with sex, but uncomfortable with any kind of gender-bending. So when Sir Alexander Wengrave (David Rintoul) disapproves of his son marrying Mary (Faye Castelow) because her dowry isn't big enough, Sebastian (Joe Bannister) has a plan: Pretend to be in love with Moll Cutpurse, and his father will be so horrified that Mary seems the perfect daughter-in-law in comparison. One slight problem with the plan is that Moll (Lisa Dillon) doesn't actually know about it, and may not want to cooperate.

Dekker and Middleton's Moll is a surprisingly modern creation, not just a cross-dresser but a woman with very specific intentions who doesn't feel the need for a man to help her realise them, and whose reputation may not quite have the full measure of her.


As with many co-authored Jacobethan plays, The Roaring Girl has rather too many subplots going on, mainly involving a group of young men Sebastian hangs out with calling themselves The Gallants, whose lives revolve around trying to capture married women's hearts and their husbands' wallets. Of these, Keir Charles' Laxton and his intentions towards Mistress Gallipot('s cash) form the major subplot, although Peter Bray provides good value as his endearingly awkward Goshawk attempts to convince Mr Openwork (Tony Jayawardena) that his wife is cheating on him, for reasons best known to himself.


The production takes a little while to find its feet, going all-out from the start but only managing to be gently amusing at first. It probably doesn't help that, while Dillon has a twinkle in her eye and a tendency to flirt with the women in the audience whether she's in male drag or not, her energy levels never seem to be quite up there with the rest of the cast. Her thunder's stolen somewhat by Lizzie Hopley as Mistress Gallipot, whose attraction to Laxton while he's so blatantly ripping her off results in a great scene of her constantly going off-book and making the audience complicit in her tricking her husband (Timothy Speyer.) It's this scene that really kicks the play up a gear, although it does highlight how Davies' production never quite knows how much it wants to involve the audience.


After a couple of years of small roles at the RSC Joe Bannister gets a go at the male lead and proves a charmingly foppish one, and got his own chance to interact with the front row when it turned out a rain effect was soaking more than just the stage. Elsewhere Jack Dapper's (Ian Bonar) pursuit of the perfect feather for his cap is expanded until it's clear not only the women like to cross-dress. Geoffrey Freshwater has fun as Trapdoor, a perpetually filthy criminal sent to spy on Moll, but his storyline is one of those that helps complicate the hell out of the overall plot.


Naomi Dawson's designs are a fun Dickensian pastiche (although the frequent musical interludes are in more of a jazz style mixed with '80s poodle rock) and there are moments when The Roaring Girl really comes to life, but overall it feels as if it falls just short of being as much fun as it could have been.

The Roaring Girl by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton is booking in repertory until the 30th of September at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

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