FIGHTS, FLIGHTS, PANTALOONS AND PRENTICES: BUT THE GROCER’S WIFE IS THE STAR.
Imagine three hours on a bench watching a cross between Spamalot and The Real Inspector Hound, performed in flickering candlelight by a talented but overwrought gang of mummers who can’t agree which bits to cut. You’re nearly there, but not quite. After launching itself with the tenebrous, brilliantly morbid Duchess of Malfi the Globe’s pretty candlelit playhouse stays reverently in-period, but veers to the opposite extreme. Francis Beaumont’s 1607 romp shows a parody of a typical romantic comedy-drama of the day – “The London Merchant” being hijacked by a couple in the audience. They are an affluent grocer and his wife (Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn) who object to the plot where a humble ‘prentice seeks to marry his master’s daughter. She is destined for a chap called Sir Humphrey: deathlessly portrayed by Dickon Tyrrell in a Barbie-pink slashed ‘n puffed pantaloon suit and what looks like Grayson Perry’s wig.
So they crash up out of the pit and insist on the star role going to their gormless apprentice Rafe (Matthew Needham). Incredibly, Noel Coward once played the part. Anyway, they demand that Rafe celebrate ordinary people as a heroic “grocer errant – a knight of the Burning Pestle” and that the arty poseurs on the stage give him the best scenes. It is as if Alan Sugar climbed on stage during Romeo and Juliet demanding a bigger part for the apothecary.
There are some fine moments, high and wild and marvellously ridiculous, and real comedy gold every time the fabulous Pauline McLynn chats loudly, rustles her bag of nuts or leaps onto the low stage to demand that her protegé kill a giant or sort out one of the hapless real actors‘ plots. Her rounded and wonderful portrait of overconfident prosperous matronliness steals the show.
It is salutary to be reminded that there’s nothing new about “breaking down the fourth wall” and having characters crash around in the auditorium. Nor about theatrical in-jokes, deliberate overacting, offended stars dropping furiously out of character, spoofy love scenes and gleeful parodies of overused 17c plots (knights errant, an irrational test of love, faked deaths , a vengeful ghost, and a rotund loon with a ginger beard (Paul Rider in another full-blown nutty performance) who can’t stop singing.
Some fights, flights and lines stick in the mind (“Is not all the world Mile End, mother?”) and anyone who rhymes “I”ll never clasp her” with “Jasper” can only be a pal. But for an archaeological froth-fest, it’s too long. Director Adele Thomas does give us three brief musical entr’actes as well as the interval in which to uncurl our aching bodies, and we need them, while we did not in the Duchess of Malfi. Physical restlessness in theatres relates strongly to lack of absorption.
But the cast are heroes all, especially Needham who has already torn a ligament and wears a leg- brace but still dives into the pit with a knightly hobbyhorse round his waist. Now my brain has stopped spinning, I’m quite glad I know what our ancestors got up to.
box office 0844 871 7628 to to 30 March