The star of this witty, perceptive show is James King as Chop – a dog. Clad in a ruff and a sort of dog’s bottom/tail trouser garment he barks, rolls over, whimpers, digs for bones and munches treats – It’s very convincing canine method acting with more than a whiff of Brecht. Then, even better, Robin Hooper’s script gives him sardonic comments in a human voice so that he also has an observational narrative function. It’s both clever writing and impressive acting.
We’re at Wilton, Wiltshire – the ancestral home of the Herbert family, the Earls of Pembroke. It’s autumn 1603. James I (James VI of Scotland) has just acceded to the throne. And Walter Raleigh, lover of the widowed Countess of Pembroke, is in prison with the likelihood of execution for treason. In order to persuade the visiting king that Raleigh should be reprieved she, herself a wannabe writer and actor, invites Shakespeare and his players to put on a new play – which the audience quickly realises is going to be As You Like It.
Cue for some very sharp, often funny, mostly ribald dialogue between the boys who play the female roles in the play. Maybe they really did sell their favours to men with money – moonlighting as rent boys. Were most of them gay anyway? And James 1, after all, is known to have preferred pretty boys to his wife. With nine in the cast there is scope for a lot of complex jealousy and tension which Hooper exploits effectively. Director Matthew Parker makes pleasing use of the Hope’s very limited space against Rachael Ryan’s atmospheric set which connotes Jacobean oak panelling and lots of cloths.
Thomas Bird is a compellingly charismatic actor. His gently corpulent, sensitive but pragmatic character Rob is drawing the attention of several characters within the play and he has the same effect on the audience. Olivia Onyehara delights as the feisty, smiling maid Peg and Clare Bloomer finds the right haughty disdain offset by lust and artistic ambition for Mary, Countess of Pembroke. The traditional Jacobean end-of-play jig is great fun too.
It’s a play with legs but they should drop the incongruous nightclub-style racket they use to orchestrate the (nippily done) scene changes. It’s very loud, very distracting and very unnecessary.
First published by Sardines http://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/reviews/review.php?REVIEW-West%20End%20&%20Fringe-Foul%20Pages&reviewsID=3114