To quote the timeless classic Shakespeare in Love (not sarcasm, I love that movie): “Love, and a bit with a dog – that’s what they want.” Robin Hooper clearly subscribes to the same belief; his play Foul Pages has both – and Shakespeare too, though in this case it’s not him who’s in love but pretty much everyone else. Will, meanwhile, is more interested in refining his latest work, As You Like It, whilst fending off interference from the Countess of Pembroke, a fellow writer full of helpful suggestions, and from King James I, who’s become infatuated with one of the actors and insists that he be given the lead role. The purpose of the production is to charm the monarch into pardoning Sir Walter Raleigh, who’s days from execution for treason – but pleasing the king comes at a cost for more than one member of the company.
Oh, and there’s also a talking dog.
Ian Hallard appears as Shakespeare, but such are the scandalous goings on that for once the legendary playwright isn’t the centre of attention. As his all-male company is torn apart by jealousy, ambition and more than a little sexual tension, all Will can do is watch in bemusement and do his best to hold everything together, along with straight-talking maid Peg (Olivia Onyehara) and the king’s devoted Scottish bodyguard Mears (Jack Harding).
Meanwhile it’s the more flamboyant characters – Lewis Chandler’s shunned actor Alex, Clare Bloomer’s eccentric Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and Tom Vanson’s lovelorn King James – who take centre stage, each driven by their own desires to take potentially catastrophic actions. There’s poignant work from Thomas Bird and Greg Baxter as actors Rob and Ed (also Shakespeare’s brother), whose fledgling relationship is threatened by the king’s interference. And then there’s Chop the dog, played to scene-stealing perfection by James King, who’s not only got all the animal behaviours down but also gets the most laughs, with wry observations on the bizarre human behaviour going on around him.
Though the action is set in 1603, director Matthew Parker gives the production a modern twist; the costumes are an intriguing mix of 17th and 21st century, and rapid scene changes are punctuated by loud music and flashing lights, creating a sense of urgency as the stakes become ever higher and events take an unexpectedly tragic turn. Rachael Ryan’s economical set allows us a glimpse of goings on both upstairs and downstairs at Wilton, while still somehow allowing enough room on the tiny Hope stage for nine people to come out and treat us to an energetic jig at the end of the show.
There’s a political detour in the plot that doesn’t quite fit – it arrives out of nowhere and is just as quickly dealt with and forgotten – but that aside, Foul Pages is a compelling and irresistibly entertaining tale of love, lust and theatrical ambition that may just make you see As You Like It, and Shakespeare himself, in a whole new light.
Foul Pages is at The Hope Theatre until 17th March.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉