REVIEW: The Shoemaker’s Holiday, Swan Theatre ✭✭✭✭

The Company of The Shoemaker's Holiday at the RSC
The Company of The Shoemaker’s Holiday. Photo: Pete Le May

The Shoemaker’s Holiday
Swan Theatre
28 February 2015
4 Stars

Gregory Doran really does know what he is doing when it comes to repertoire. When the idea of “No Shakespeare in the Swan”, while the Shakespeare canon plays out in its entirety on the RST stage, was first announced it seemed like an interesting enough idea: placing Shakespeare’s work in context by playing the work of his contemporaries constantly alongside it. But as the enterprise proceeds, it is clear that it is not just interesting, but inspired.

Seeing the work of Shakespeare’s contemporaries helps inform our understanding of the vitality and urgency that underpins Shakespeare’s work, the issues and themes he was writing about or against, the public appetite at the time he wrote. All of this helps us to understand why Shakespeare was the supreme dramatist of his time, probably of every time, and to let us get to grips with his humour, popularity and contemporaneity.

Thomas Dekker’s festive frolic, The Shoemaker’s Holiday, now playing at the Swan Theatre, is an exemplar in this respect. It is generally regarded as a riposte to Shakespeare’s Henry V, taking place at roughly the same time, with ordinary men being press-ganged into war against France, a Falstaff-like central figure, and a King very different (effete, shrewd, mischievous) from the one who Shakespeare would send once more into the breach. Seeing it with knowledge of Henry V, immediately improves it; one expects that when Doran’s production of Henry V opens in the RST later this year, those who have seen Philip Breen’s production of The Showmaker’s Holiday will appreciate it that much more.

Breen squeezes every bit of comedic possibility from the play. The repertory company, so good in the dramatic and enthralling Oppenheimer, prove to be equally skilled in the bawdy comedy department. There are sly asides, vicious insults, dirty double entendres, rowdy gags, silly accent routines, fart jokes, catch-phrase jollity, physical comedy, costume comedy, sight gags, clowning – you name it, it can be found in Breen’s lucid, fast-moving and hugely enjoyable production.

Like all good comedies, it has a silly but convoluted plot. Ralph, a shoemaker, has married Jane recently. He gets press-ganged into military service and his master, Simon Eyre, tries to bribe the Colonel into letting Ralph stay with his wife. But the Colonel won’t be swayed and Ralph goes off to war. This despite the fact that the Colonel himself abandons his position in the Army in order to find a way to woo his own love, Rose. Rose’s father and his own father are opposed to the wedding, for different reasons (money and status) so the Colonel (Rowland) pretends to be Dutch and takes a job as a shoemaker, working for Eyre.

An aristocrat, Hammon, spots Jane and woos her, telling her that her husband has been killed in the war in France. She is devastated by the news and although she refuses Hammon’s hand at first, she relents and agrees to marry him. She does not want to be left poor and alone. But Ralph is not dead; injured, badly, he is home from the war. With a wedding to make happen and a wedding to avoid, there is much for the Shoemakers to attend to. Throw in a ruse with a ship and funny accented foreigners which results in Simon Eyre being elevated to mayor, and you have the general idea.

A lot of silly nonsense. But terrific, good fun.

Max Jones’ costumes are lush and colourful and perfectly embellish, and reflect, the machinations of the narrative. Hammon’s outfits are laugh out loud funny, establishing him effortlessly as a preening peacock. Simon Eyre’s outfits accentuate his larger than life vulgarity and pugnacious loquacity, and those of his wife reflect her grasping, fishwife sensibilities. The louche glamour of the King’s outfits sets up his character perfectly and make his final moment all the more chilling.

The set is spare, but there are tremendous set pieces: the floor painted to resemble rich, green blue marble; the huge, circular stained-class window, high above the stage; the unexpected use of a trapdoor. It all allows for simple, effective staging, permitting the greatest fluidity of movement.

If there is one quibble with the staging, it is that too much of the action is blocked by stationary onlooking bodies. It is easy enough to use the platforms at the stage’s end to get people offstage who have nothing to say but whose presence blocks the action for a deal of the audience. And whoever dresses Hammon should take greater care with his costume: having a label clearly visible tends to dilute the astonishing effect of his wedding outfit.

Still, these are small issues, especially given the quality of the acting and the magnificent way in which almost the entire company masters and makes comprehensible Dekker’s long-ago composed text.

Central to the glories here, and in blustering, full-bodied and bellicose mode, David Troughton is superb as Simon Eyre. Blessed with a rich and resonant old-school classical voice, Troughton gorges on every word, spitting phrases and sentences into the air, ensuring they are fruity, perfectly weighted and always hit home. He can be trivial or portentous, lascivious or kind, frivolous or genuinely touching; but he is always irresistible. His rousing speech to the King in the final Act is powerful and moving; the moment when he marvels at the possibility of one of his shoemakers becoming a grocer sums up his character’s lust for life: his mastication of the word “plum” was breathtaking.

Watching his delicious, utterly mesmerising performance here made one wish, desperately, that he had played Falstaff in the recent Doran versions of Henry IV instead of Antony Sher. Troughton would have been the real deal: Doran needs to be careful in casting Sher or he might doom his tenure as RSC AD to a nepotism vortex.

Vivien Parry provided superb comic genius as Mrs Eyre. Ghastly and irresistible, she was a powerhouse contrast to Troughton. Her timing was as exceptional as her vocal dynamism. Perfection in a Madame Thernadier kind of way – her dissolute, garish Queen Elizabeth I appearance when money came her way was sensational.

As Firk, the gobby, raucous, but ultimately good-hearted Shoemaker (a kind of archetypal unionist) Joel MacCormack was quite wonderful. His grasp of the language was masterful, and he could play belligerence as easily as comic goading. Cleverly, he positioned Firk as the almost son of Troughton’s Eyre: similar, influenced, but very much his own, eccentric man. A winning and complete performance.

Jack Holden was radiant as the anti-Henry V. The King only appears at the very end of the play and he has two purposes: to solve the plot issues, by pardoning and marrying off Rowley; and to deliver the surprise twist. Holden, a smart, clever performer, pulls both off perfectly. In a cast of big, larger than life characters, he opts for the underplay, thereby instantly establishing himself as set apart from the rest of the cast. Playing twee never reaped such rewards as Holden achieves here. It is interesting to hear this Dekker monarch pre-empt the words WS Gilbert would pen for Sir Joseph Porter a few hundred years later – love levels all class.

Because of the indisposition of Michael Hodgson, Holden also stepped up to play the wild, ferociously accented sailor who changes Eyre’s destiny. Holden channels his inner Monty Python here to great comic effect. So does Josh O’Connor as the posh boy, Rowley, who hides himself, as a Dutch shoemaker, among Eyre’s men when he should be fighting France. His hilarious cod Dutch accent provides many moments of genuine, surprising comic delight.

O’Connor has been thrashed by the matinee idol stick, and is every inch the handsome leading man. Which makes Thomasin Rand’s job as Rose all that much easier. Beautiful and spirited, Rand makes a fine Rose, although her voice is not as warm and seductive as might be desired. Her frocks are sensational and she wears them well, with a vivacious style that captivates.

As Ralph, Daniel Boyd is terrific: gentle, caring and humble, he shoulders the burdens he encounters with grace and skill. The moment when he realises that the shoe he has been given to copy for a wedding belongs to his own wife shimmers with pain. As his wife, Jane, Hedydd Dylan is truly lovely, signalling clearly the tangled emotions of this war widow and Peacock prey.

Jamie Wilkes is sensational as the Peacock, Hammon. Absurdly pretentious, with pronunciation that would not shame the Queen, Wilkes is completely in control of the comedy his character entails. The scene where he tries to secure Jane is the comic highlight of the evening; closely followed by his costumes and their entrances. He knows precisely how to whirl an outfit for precise comic effect.

The running fart gag was skilfully handled by Laura Cubitt (Cicely Bumtrinket) and there was spirited and excellent work from Sandy Foster (a garrulous Sybil), Andrew Langtree’s excellent Dodge, and Tom McCall (stepping up to play Hodge).

In truth, the entire ensemble is in excellent form. The musical and dance numbers are particularly wonderful, with Jason Carr’s original music especially effective. Ayse Tashkiran is in charge of movement, all of which works perfectly.

Breen’s work here is first-rate: an enjoyable, hearty laugh time in the theatre. All of which made the King’s final lines, that more unexpected and shattering:

When all our sports and banquetings are done,
Wars must right wrongs which Frenchmen have begun.

Proof, if proof be needed, that Doran’s vision for repertoire at the RSC is sound.

The Shoemakers Holiday runs until March 7, 2015. Visit the RSC Website.

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