The Royal Shakespeare Company's season of rarities is turning out to be as unsettling as it is surprising. At The Roman Actor, one might almost have been watching a 1920s Italian play, exploring totalitarian rule and confusion of identity. Eastward Ho!, written even earlier (1605), leaps ahead even farther, to the 1950s. This bustling bourgeois comedy by Ben Jonson, George Chapman and John Marston, in Lucy Pitman-Wallace's lively production, ends with a quadruple pairing, but there's not a love match in sight. One couple are hardworking, modest and thrifty – which, in this market-oriented ambience, are all that's counted necessary for happiness. The others – a rogue reunited with the girl he seduced and abandoned, a goldsmith's daughter who has wed a con man for his title, an old man and his faithless young wife – grin and submit to the power of matrimony. The action is directed and commented on by the goldsmith, a hearty quizmaster type (Geoffrey Freshwater), who even has a catchphrase. Despite the play's enthusiasm for the wedded state, I fear it may have ended many 17th-century marriages with a frying-pan to the head of a husband who exclaimed, "Go to work on that!'' one time too many.
Eastward Ho! has plenty of comic conceits, including the one announced in its title: the phoney aristocrat and the goldsmith's idle apprentice set off for America, where, they hear, "all the chamber pots are pure gold", only to be shipwrecked on the Isle of Dogs. Along with the good gags, however, there are plenty of strained ones, and Pitman-Wallace, whose forte does not seem to be wit, has added to them with anachronistic visual gags that would be considered embarrassingly puerile at a school panto. And while James Tucker, as the industrious apprentice, acts with a lightness that takes the curse off his prissy role, Shelley Conn, as his wife, makes hers even duller with a delivery more suited to the multiplication tables.
But the best joke of all gets, thank goodness, the best execution, in the performance of Amanda Drew as the vain, silly daughter who wants to be "ladyfied''. Chattering with babyish greed and tossing her red ringlets like a combination of Jean Harlow and Lucille Ball, she is one of those characters you cannot dislike, no matter how despicably they behave. This is partly accounted for by the pity evoked by a self-deception so intense that it will plainly end in tears: Drew practically emits an aura of demonic possession as the idea of riding in her own coach and taking precedence over her mother transports her to some other-worldly realm.
But the rest is down to Drew herself, who is, as we used to say in the US, cute as a pair of French pants. This actress may make me revise my opinion that players described as "irrepressible'' are to be avoided at all costs.
To 25 January (0870 890 1105)
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