Review: When Paul’s Boys Met Edward’s Boys

The year 1600 was the first in many that avid theatregoers had the choice of going to see not one, but two, professional all-boy troupes: the Children of Paul’s (1599-1606), who worked, predictably, out of a small indoor playhouse in the cloisters of Paul’s Cathedral, and the Children of the Chapel/Revels/Blackfriars/Queen’s Revels (1600-1613; they had a bit of an identity crisis), who occupied a larger venue in the Blackfriars. The companies were united in their experimental nature, their inventive approach to playwriting and performance, and, if the plays written for them are anything to go by, their shared possession of extraordinary musical, physical, and emotional range. 

Though the companies operated simultaneously for more than half a decade and vied for the same audiences, though their respective playhouses were a leisurely stroll apart, and though on occasion an actor or two crossed over from one company to the other, the troupes never, as far as we know, collaborated (though their forerunners, operating as much as two decades before, occasionally did). When Paul’s Boys Met Edward’s Boys, a momentous meeting of the best choristers in the world and the world’s premier all-boy acting company performed on consecutive nights at St Paul’s’ OBE Chapel and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, offered a tantalising suggestion of just how wonderful such a collaboration might have been. 

The brainchild of Michael Hampel (Precentor, St Paul’s Cathedral—a K.E.S. Old Boy), and devised by Perry Mills (K.E.S Deputy Head and Director of Edward’s Boys) with Andrew Carwood (Director of Music, St Paul’s Cathedral), the fruitful collaboration between eleven boy choristers and twenty-four boy actors played to packed houses/chapels on both nights, delighting audiences with a virtuosic showcase of what each company does best and, most excitingly, of how working in collaboration can make them strive to be better. 

In preparing the production, the organisers emphasised the importance of playing to each company’s strengths. And so it was that the programme offered comedy (in abundance), pathos, romance, and bloody tragedy via Dekker, Jonson, Lyly, Marlowe, Marston, Middleton, Nashe, and Webster, interwoven with perfectly-pitched readings celebrating the boy company tradition and Edward’s Boys successes, and—a real treat—music both jocular and haunting by Benjamin Britten, William Byrd, John Dowland, John Merbecke, Thomas Morley, and, excitingly, Thomas Ravenscroft, himself a performer with the Paul’s troupe at the turn of the seventeenth century. 

The music—stunningly sung and equally at home reverberating off the cavernous stone ceilings of the OBE or swelling to fill the intimate Wanamaker auditorium—was complemented and ably matched by the arrangements of K.E.S. Old Boys Sam Bridges and Joe Woodman, whose settings of ‘Spring the Sweet Spring’ and ‘Adieu, Farewell’ in the excerpts from Summer’s Last Will and Testament both hit the spot and, in the case of the latter song, left not a dry eye in the house. To any Edward’s Boys regular, or seventeenth-century music junkie—or, at least in the case of this reviewer, a weird hybrid of the two—the performances were like watching a greatest hits compilation. 

Among the biggest hits, of course, were the boys themselves. Though some of the plays on show—A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and Mother Bombie—were first performed by Edward’s Boys eight years ago, meaning that their original casts have long departed, each of the excerpts simultaneously offered nostalgic throwbacks to their ‘original’ productions and fresh, exciting new takes on the roles that prohibited easy comparison. Particularly striking was the ease with which boys young and old slipped from one role to another in the space of mere minutes, shedding invaluable light on the astounding repertoire of roles their seventeenth-century counterparts must have had at their fingertips and the pleasure audiences must have taken in seeing them. The tightly-knit, ensemble nature of Edward’s Boys discourages singling any individuals out too prominently; nevertheless, these repertoires were particularly visible in Adam Hardy’s line of lusty, comic, and tragic older men (Lyly’s Jupiter and Ericthinis, Nashe’s Summer), Charlie Waters’s  particular talent for female impersonation as Lyly’s Pandora and Marlowe’s Dido, and the range of roles taken by company stalwarts Nick Jones and Jack Hawkins, who evolved seamlessly from Lyly’s Nature and Nashe’s Autumn, respectively, into a deliciously libidinous Middletonian playboy and a chilling Marstonian revenger (via, in true Edward’s Boys collaborative spirit, the all-important role of Hebe’s tree trunk).

That collaborative spirit, so amply on display whether the actors were leaping into one another’s arms—bravo to Tristan Barford and Jamie Mitchell for that tour de force of a frisky exit in Westward Ho!—rearranging the simple black-box set, or clambering atop one another to build Hebe’s tree or Dido’s fire, was made all the stronger by the presence of the choristers. Though initially spatially distant (in the choirstalls in the OBE or on the balcony at the Wanamaker), slowly but surely Paul’s Boys really did meet Edward’s Boys. Their songs certainly shed tonal and thematic light in abundance on the selection of scenes performed by their acting counterparts, and their treble voices lent great support to Bridges’ arrangements. More than this, however, their occasional presence in the scenes themselves—as pages in Antonio’s Revenge or wonderfully awkward statues in Chaste Maid—swelled the acting company ranks in a highly productive, exciting way. The meeting of the two companies was less a ‘War of the Theatres’ and more a ‘Partnership of the Pueri.’  

It seems entirely appropriate that, by accident rather than design, the performance at the OBE took place on the 384th anniversary of Marston’s death. I can’t imagine a better way for him to celebrate that looking down on (or up at, most like) Hawkins’s hypnotic Antonio smearing the blood of Tom Howitt’s Julio on the tombstones. Like Hampel, Carwood, and Mills, Marston knew a thing or two about what boys are capable of (Short answer: the sky’s the limit!) The performance of his drama, and the drama of his contemporaries, by these two companies proved that beyond question. In his programme note for the production, Mills stressed that neither company is interested in archaeological or historical recovery. Nor need they be. When Paul’s Boys Met Edward’s Boys demonstrated in abundance that the companies, whether together or apart, are making history of their own. 

Harry R. McCarthy

University of Exeter