Review: A Trick To Catch an Old One

Edward’s Boys’ production of Thomas Middleton’s A Trick to Catch an Old One begs the question of why Middleton’s city comedies are not performed more often by companies like the RSC. That said, it also reminds us how an amateur boys’ company, like Edward’s Boys, can capture the reckless energy of Middleton’s boy plays that may elude adult professional actors. Behind the raucous enthusiasm of Edward’s Boys’ performance is an intelligent, well-crafted production by Perry Mills that fully comprehends the dramatic value of the boy actor in a play that stages generational conflict so starkly.

Trick to Catch an Old One pits the wit of the young ones, Theodorus Witgood and Jane Medlar, against the avaricious cunning of the old ones, Pecunious Lucre and Walkadine Hoard. Witgood has been beggared by his uncle, Lucre, and is pursued by his creditors, who smell blood like so many of Middleton’s ravenous usurers. To restore his fortunes, and exact his own payment, Witgood enters an alliance with one of his own kind, Jane, his ‘punk’, in the early and modern senses of the word.

Punk provides this production with the political aesthetic that gives currency to A Trick’s plots. Dr. Jonathan Heron’s programme notes argue for a theatrical equivalence between punk and Middleton’s oeuvre. Set in the summer of 1977, in this production the young ones of Middleton’s play now belong to an urban subculture. Punk gives the generational politics of the play, which pit the young against the old in a society driven by money, an edgy relevance that speaks as much to our own Millennials as to first wave of punk. Jane arrives onstage in the first scene as a punk, bringing to the role of Jane as Courtesan, an angry, anarchic refusal to be defined by another’s terms. Her union with Witgood, her co-creator in this game of wit, is a local alliance created by circumstance, desire and pleasure; it represents a subculture in microcosm, formed out of the rejection of traditional bonds of kinship, which, in any case, are now devoid of meaning. The old ones seek to devour their young for no other reason than they can.

The production team – costume, set design, props and music – is to be congratulated. The greyness of Thatcher’s Britain is evoked through clever use of stage effects that effortlessly evoke the stifling world of middle-class suburbia. The old ones wear cardigans and slippers. Hoard shuffles round the stage, tending his garden; Lucre and his family gather round a radio in the sitting room listening to Queen’s Jubilee on the BBC; later he will sit in his armchair in his cardigan listening to Boycott score his hundredth hundred (against Australia!).

The production takes full advantage of boys playing old men to tease out the generational conflict. The resulting irreverent friction means that the young ones call the shots, and take control over the means of representation. Parody is sharp but subtle in this performance, and does not harden into oversimplifying caricature. This is largely down to the brilliance of the direction and the sheer quality of the acting. The affectionate and energetic playfulness that Jack Hawkins and Charlie Waters bring to their performance of the co-conspirators, Witgood and Jane, is balanced by the sterile hatred Joe Pocknell and Rory Gopsill capture in their performance of the petty rivalry between the two old men, Lucre and Hoard.

Rory Gospill’s performance as Walkadine Hoard is particularly noteworthy. His wonderfully expressive face captured Hoard’s impotent rage, contorted like an ancient Greek theatre mask into an open-mouthed expression of fury that was simultaneously monstrous, comic and pathetic. His performance never pushed beyond our sympathy, which must be retained given that Hoard is destined to be Jane’s husband. The scene in which Hoard tends to his flowers while plotting to possess the Widow Medlar deftly captured the character’s age and his cynical scheming, while suggesting his capacity to care for something beyond himself.

One feature that Edwards’ Boys can bring to our understanding of plays produced for boy companies that professional companies cannot is how boy actors can mature in the roles they perform, particularly given the longevity of this company and relative stability of its members. The sanctimonious cruelty of Pecunious Hoard, who gains his pleasure by delighting in the downfall of others, was effortlessly captured by Joe Pocknell. His performance in A Trick is a remarkable departure from his earlier Spinella, the lady of John Ford’s The Lady’s Trial, a 2015 Edward’s Boys production. Pocknell’s Spinella combined an almost ethereal delicacy with moral stature. In this production of A Trick, Pucknell is transformed into a mean old man, the thoroughly nasty and morally bankrupt, Lucre. Similarly, Charlie Waters, who took the title role of the boyish Galatea in Edward’s Boys’ production of John Lyly’s play, brings to the role of Jane a more mature composure, resulting in an onstage presence that resists the misogyny that styles Jane as property and as whore. Jack Hawkins’ skills as a comic actor mean that as Witgood he has the flexibility to hold the various comic plots together with ease.

The standout feature of this production is its use of music. Paul’s Boys were choristers and Middleton’s plays work with the musical skills of their boy actors. And so does this production. The way that the onstage punk band ‘Teenage TricKES’ is integrated into this production is inspired. The result is a play infused with a punk aesthetic and politics that makes contemporary sense of its anger and generational conflict. The playlist includes the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and Ian Dury and the Blockheads, as well as other late 1970s classics, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ and Abba’s ‘Money, Money, Money’. All have been carefully chosen to underscore A Trick’s anarchic cynicism which, in turn, makes Johnny Rotten’s quip, ‘We still hate each other with a vengeance, but we’ve found a common cause, and that’s your money’ (Programme Notes), such an appropriate epigraph to the play. The line between characters and musicians is dissolved: as characters leave their scenes, they take the microphone to sing the soundtrack to their own play. Yet, since each song is owned and recast by its performers, rather than creating simple nostalgia, the impression is of history mindlessly repeating itself. Punk in this production not only captures Middleton’s theatre of extremes, but also the raw and experimental energy of a boys’ company.

Professor Michelle O’Callaghan

University of Reading