If current performance practice is to be believed, Beaumont and Fletcher were the Tony Orlando and Dawn of their day. True, The Knight of the Burning Pestle has little in common with "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree" but both partnerships appear to be masters of the one-hit-wonder. Not so. On this showing, The Maid's Tragedy proves to be, if not exactly an undiscovered masterpiece, then severely unjustly neglected.
Although the central action is confined to a tight-knit quintet of characters, the emotional range is extremely wide, encompassing heartfelt avowals of eternal love, rampant lust, deceit and murderous betrayal. Amintor breaks his engagement to the distraught Aspatia at the king's behest and marries Evadne. On their wedding night, Evadne disdainfully reveals that she only consented so as to disguise the fact that she is the king's mistress. When Aspatia's brother Melantius discovers the foul truth, he persuades Evadne to murder the king.
The heightened mood swings make for passionate drama but create problems for the director which Lucy Bailey doesn't manage to solve. The opening scenes lack dramatic weight thus robbing the play of its gravitas. Several stranded members of the cast appear isolated as they struggle with the enormous demands this theatre makes rather than playing a coherent through- line. That explains why, on the opening night, members of a packed audience were laughing nervously at moments of profound pathos. Anna-Livia Ryan as Aspatia delivers the play's famous lament for her grief-stricken state (used as an epigraph by TS Eliot), but it is not her fault that she comes across as self-indulgently glad to be unhappy. Bailey invests scenes with scattershot energy but the play is crying out for clarity of purpose and a clear directorial thrust. The cohesion that exists comes from Jane Gardner's excellent score for five brass players (notably in Angela Davies's wittily designed masque) and Geraldine Alexander's tremendous Evadne. Although physically shorter than Amintor (Jonathan Slinger), she is so in command both physically and in terms of character development that she appears to tower over him effortlessly.
Admittedly, Malcolm McKay has an easier task with A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. Thomas Middleton's bawdy romp inhabits a simpler world of young love, whoring and mercenary marriages. The perfectly matched Matthew Scurfield and Amelda Brown (all bustling avarice in apricot) have more than the measure of the tawdry, conniving parents who yearn to up their station by marrying off their daughter Moll to cock of the walk, the wicked Sir Walter Whorehound.
Most of the cast double-up to great comic effect. There's a particularly glorious scene with a Puritan version of a baby shower peopled by most of the cast in Puritan drag (courtesy of Jenny Tiramani's excellent costumes) but winningly, McKay never lets the scene topple over into caricature.
Bill Stewart is marvellously funny as grumpy, frumpy Mistress Jugg, resisting the temptation to opt for the full Les Dawson option and all the funnier for it. Mark Rylance puts in a deliciously droll appearance as Sir Walter's dimwitted whoremaster, cutting capers and turning the space into the most intimate studio theatre. McKay, too, is alive to its possibilities, reducing the audience to hysterics with a chase right up to the roof and down again or driving the comedy along at full-throttle.
This unique venue ruthlessly exposes vocal and physical limitations. The Maid's Tragedy is unquestionably the finer play and productions of it are rarer than hen's teeth, but the cast and production have yet to relax and match the play. By contrast, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is rougher in every sense but the production turns that to its advantage. McKay takes a crude play in what seems like a crude theatre and translates it into a treasurable event.
To 20 Sept. Booking: 0171-344 4444