Saturday, 20 December 2014

Theatre review: The Shoemaker's Holiday

The latest former RSC regular making a return to Stratford-upon-Avon is David Troughton, in the title role of Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday. But while there's a starring role for him, this comedy with occasional lurches into darkness is quite an ensemble piece. It starts with a serous premise: The King is going to war with the French (possibly Henry V at Agincourt although the play never makes it explicit) and many men are being conscripted. Apprentice Shoemaker Ralph (Daniel Boyd) has recently got married, and doesn't want to leave his new wife Jane (Heddydd Dylan) alone. He begs to be excused, but Rowland Lacy (Josh O'Connor) refuses to make an exception, and packs Ralph off to war. Lacy, though, has his own love in London, Rose (Thomasin Rand,) daughter of the Lord Mayor (William Gaminara.) Because of the difference in class, neither of their families approves of the match, and think Lacy leading a charge to France will split them up.

Lacy has no intention of going to war though, and quickly deserts his post to be closer to Rose. Disguising himself as a German cobbler he takes over Ralph's old job with master shoemaker Simon Eyre (Troughton.)

Dekker's play is apparently cobbled together from a number of anecdotes and folk stories about shoemaking, and does have a few obvious plot holes and messy moments - for example Hammon's (Jamie Wilkes) affections flip-flop pretty abruptly from Rose to Jane; the latter also disappears without trace for a while for no reason other than the plot demands it. But it does use all of this confusion in the service of a romantic comedy of misunderstandings, and while it's not the funniest comedy ever written, Phillip Breen's production approaches it with a zest and silliness that make it hard not to smile throughout.

The production does acknowledge, though, that Dekker's subject matter deals with genuine fears of being conscripted - Ralph returns from the war badly injured, but while the play's sole requirement is that he have lost the use of one leg, Breen also gives him severe facial scarring that makes his hopes of reconciliation with Jane all the more poignant. And while the play's happy ending sees the King (Jack Holden) forgive the desertions and lace up all the loose ends, it comes with a caveat reminding us that the benevolence of kings comes with demands for continuing sacrifice.

But for the most part this is a silly show - what else could it be when it includes a prolific farter called Cicely Bumtrinket (Laura Cubitt) - with a lot of good roles: Eyre is a pretty jolly character who prospers throughout the show without ever forgetting his roots; eventually becoming the new Lord Mayor, he foots the bill for a banquet for the apprentices. In a fun performance by Vivien Parry, his wife Margery becomes an increasingly ridiculous figure as their social status rises, with a costume that goes full Anne Boleyn by the end, and a bizarre attempt at a posh accent to boot.

Recent graduate Joel MacCormack is also very good in the surprisingly large role of Firk, another of Eyre's apprentices who helps make sure his friends get together with the women they love. Appropriately enough, Max Jones' costume designs pay particular attention to some spectacular shoes, although nice as the Gothic church design of the set is, I'm not sure it makes a huge amount of sense except in the final scenes. There's livelier shows of seasonal silliness out there, but The Shoemaker's Holiday proves well worth digging out of the archives, and is given plenty of spirit in Breen's production.

The Shoemaker's Holiday by Thomas Dekker is booking in repertory until the 7th of March at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

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