THE ROARING GIRL
Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 16th April, 2014
Shakespeare’s contemporaries Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton teamed up to write this comedy of deception, here brought to the stage by director Jo Davies who uproots the action to the late 19th century. This makes for a good-looking production designed by Naomi Watson with men in tails and curios in glass cabinets. And it makes sense – the cross-dressing, ‘roaring’ girl of the title brings to mind novelist George Sand and male impersonator Vesta Tilley – although on first appearance Lisa Dillon’s Moll Cutpurse reminds me of a Brosette. Why the music and songs (by Simon Baker and Gary Yershon) are so anachronistic, including electric guitars, is beyond me. If it’s meant to be an alienation device, it worked by yanking me out of the atmosphere of the play, but it didn’t work in terms of reminding me this is artifice and I should be intellectualising about the morality of the situation… All I thought was how the music doesn’t fit. I would have chosen snatches of music hall songs to cover transitions, but what do I know?
There is much to enjoy in the performances of the players. David Rintoul is superbly indignant as the scheming Sir Alexander, contrasted by the exuberant and fresh-faced scheming of son Sebastian (Joe Bannister). Christopher Middleton is suitably pompous as Neatfoot the butler, a walking thesaurus, and I particularly enjoyed Mr and Mrs Openwork (Tony Jayawardena and Harvey Virdi) as a pair of scheming tailors. Everyone is involved in scheming at some point, making for very shallow drama and characters for whom you don’t give a fig. Some scenes are very funny (double entendres in a tobacconist’s) but some of the action is fudged by the inconsistent quality of the staging. I’ve said it before, in venues like the Swan, you have to keep the cast moving so that everyone gets a chance to see their backs; don’t leave them downstage looking upstage, masking the action for a large section of the audience.
Lisa Dillon doesn’t so much roar as swagger. Her Moll is a posturing principal boy with painted-on stubble. You can imagine her as Peter Pan very easily. She shows a nice line in comic timing but you get the feeling the role isn’t much of a stretch for her. She makes an apology in an epilogue for the thinness of the plot and the quality of the production – the playwrights’ last joke. But then the company regroup for an ill-advised bout of street-dancing that is just embarrassing.
I wanted to like The Roaring Girl more than I did. I guess I’ve been spoiled by recent exposure to the superior work of Spanish contemporary Lope de Vega.