Review: A Chaste Maid in Cheapside

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, performed by Edward’s Boys, 2-6 March 2010, King’s College London, Somerville College Oxford, and Levi Fox Hall, K.E.S.

More than any other theatre company, including the best of the professionals, Edward’s Boys are in the vanguard of exploring the theatrical style of Thomas Middleton and other contemporaries of Shakespeare. Their most recent production, once again under the skilled direction of Perry Mills, was Thomas Middleton’s outrageous city comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.

The play centres on the appropriately-named gentleman lecher Sir Walter Whorehound (Oliver Hayes). He is surrounded by a series of complex intrigues that are variously designed to nurture or upset his financial and sexual affairs. Cheapside is where the events are played out. It was London’s main market, but in the play the market wares are not only rings, quack remedies, and joints of lamb, but also mistresses, wives, and children. The Cheapside citizen Allwit, brilliantly played as a gaunt, complacent hypocrite by Harry Davies, takes huge self-satisfaction from the fact that his wife is Whorehound’s mistress, and his children fathered by Whorehound. Whorehound has all the expense, trouble, and anxiety of running the family household, while Allwit complacently enjoys the benefit without lifting a finger. Such is Middleton’s comic satire on a materialist society in which human relationships are shaped by money and desire.

This is Middleton’s comic masterpiece, written after several years’ practice in composing city comedies for performance by companies of boy actors. It was itself performed by an adult company, but the K.E.S. production demonstrated that Middleton’s experience writing for younger actors shows through in this play too. It is an ensemble piece, with a number of substantial and attractive roles spread across the company, whilst also offering numerous shorter walk-on parts. As such, it proved an excellent show-piece for the company’s skills. Some Middleton productions make the mistake of playing the text for little more than dirty jokes in Jacobean costume. In contrast, Edward’s Boys found a theatrical idiom that brought the play to life as a vivid and richly textured theatre work that has a sprit and integrity wholly different from a Shakespeare play.

The company is, as far as I know, the only stable group of players in Britain consisting entirely of boy actors. It has now been working for several years on plays written mostly for the boy companies of Shakespeare’s era, and, and as any boys’ company must do, it has developed an effective balance between a maturing core of experienced performers and an influx of younger actors. The K.E.S. group now performs regularly in Oxford as well as Stratford, and includes Warwick and London on its tour circuit. Historians of theatre are taking note: the company’s productions are providing fascinating insights into the performance of the plays of Shakespeare’s time, and indeed, as boy actors performed the female roles in Shakespeare’s own plays, there are implications here too.

Perry Mills fused together the language of Jacobean London with modern costume that gave the play a contemporary edge. The Touchwood brothers (Alex Mills and Jamie Huyton), for instance, were spivs in black leather jackets, streetwise lads on the make. The action was fast and fluid, even to the extent of risking clarity by intercutting one scene with another. Mills’s production responded positively to Middleton’s carefully ironic use of separate groups of characters on-stage at the same time, by stretching the performance space, and presenting different actions as happening simultaneously, with sudden switches from one to another.

Edward’s Boys are confident in handling the language and theatrical meaning of the early modern play-scripts, and intelligent and energetic in realising them on stage. They rise to the challenge of performing female roles impressively, avoiding the parody female impersonation of the sillier traditions of English comedy routines running from the Goon Show via Dick Emery and Monty Python to Dame Edna. In the K.E.S. Chaste Maid, the roles of Mistress Allwit (James Wilkinson), the fussily and materialistically maternal Maudline Yellowhammer (Jonny Clowes), her love-sick daughter Moll (George Matts) and the frustratedly childless Lady Kix (Jeremy Franklin) were all played confidently and without embarrassment, giving life to the parts while making the most of the comedy inherent in the play as Middleton wrote it.

The players also showed themselves adept at adjusting to different performance spaces. I saw performances at the chapel of Somerville College and the Levi Fox Hall in K.E.S. At Somerville, it was decided to use the central aisle between the pews as part of the thoroughfare of Cheapside, which brought the action into the midst of the audience. In order to cope with the unusually elongated stage, some of the movement needed to be accelerated, raising the energy level on this particular night even higher than it would otherwise have been. The Levi Fox Hall two days later was a homecoming for a production that by then had already won acclaim from two cities and two universities.

The K.E.S. company is clearly leading the way in the exploration of early modern plays using an all-boys cast. Those of us privileged to see these productions are learning about a key aspect of the production of plays in Shakespeare’s period. We are also seeing excellent productions of plays that are insufficiently performed, and, above all, enjoying some memorable evenings in the theatre.

 

Professor John Jowett
The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham