Swan Theatre, Stratford – until 29 April 2017
Belly laugh-inducing scripts are not always the norm at The RSC, although Shakespeare has undoubtedly written some fine comedies, however, this production of The Hypocrite had both myself and my plus one beside ourselves with laughter. A head wasn’t the only thing to roll in this hilarious piece about the 17th century Governor of Hull, Sir John Holtham (Mark Addy). Set in the 17th century it may be, but the modern twists that are subtly interwoven are an additional source of humour in this laugh-a-minute, raucous comedy.
The action begins at the end as we’re shown Sir John being led to his be-heading and his sorrowful cook, Connie (Laura Elsworthy) at her wits end. Connie narrates at various times throughout which is occasionally necessary as there is such an over-drive of energy in each scene. If elderly man-servant, Drudge (Danielle Bird) isn’t being hung up on a hook, dropped into a cellar or falling over from the weight of a sword he’s taken hold of, then Lady Sarah Hotham (Caroline Quentin) is running off having kicked her husband in a sensitive area or branded him one expletive or another. Daughter, Frances (Sarah Middleton) is determined not to be married off to Peregrine Pelham (Neil D’Souza) and who can blame her? The boggle-eyed fifty-something gets turned on by the sight of a lady’s finger, let alone the provocative bed that has been designed by Indigo Jones! Frances has discovered Shakespeare and happens to be reading Romeo and Juliet when she stumbles upon two men who take her fancy, The King’s Son, Duke Of York (James Metcalfe) and his German cousin, Prince Rupert (Rowan Polonski), a pair of flamboyant dressers who are, in my opinion, a formidable comedy duo. With the running theme being Sir John being charged by Parliament to secure the arsenal at Hull and deny entry to King Charles I. He’s playing a dicey game as the question of a dowry for his daughter comes into the equation. His wife, Sarah cannot stand him and fancies herself some free lovin’ living with Sir John’s cousin, Saltmarsh (Matt Sutton) and Sir John couldn’t care less, he has a thing for Connie, his cook – although he doesn’t exactly flatter her before he takes her in his arms! There’s also the matter of Sir John’s eldest son, Captain Jack who talks in metaphors, but can also change to similes when required. It’s all leading to ‘off with his head’ at any rate.
A play with adult themes and the odd bit of f’ing and blinding, it certainly is – this only adds to the abundance of humour, though. Feckulant is a word used frequently by Sir John and it fits the period then and now! Mark Addy tirelessly ploughs energy into his performance and Caroline Quentin positively shines on stage, my first experience of watching her tread the boards and her comic timing is perfect for this genre. Sarah Middleton is wonderfully baby-ish with her high pitched cries and random tearing across the set when she’s engrossed in her book. James Metcalfe with his over the top costumes and swagger, quite the comedian, as was Rowan Polonski, they have been well cast together. Laura Elsworthy, I last saw in Cooking with Elvis at Derby Theatre and she was a steady, strong presence as Connie. In a cast with no weak links who work together brilliantly as an ensemble, it’s difficult to pinpoint stand-out turns, but Danielle Bird as Drudge is in a league of her own. I was already familiar with her work and she is a terrific character actress, acrobat and skilled comedy performer.
The RSC stage a production with style and show, which is not always immediately evident until the play unfolds, in the case of this piece, the set appears simple. The slick and effective way in which it opens up to reveal a drawbridge with a moat littered with a shopping trolley, amongst other mod cons plus the beheading scene itself at the beginning are a treat indeed. The whole of the auditorium is put to extraordinary use, as is typical of productions at the RSC and which The Swan Theatre lends itself to, exceptionally.
Engaging the audience from the outset and maintaining the interaction (I suspect the audience members seated on the row who copped for Frances rolling off stage onto their laps had rather a shock!) The Hypocrite is a well-crafted, cleverly written script which Philip Breen has directed as a choreographer would. Even in the ensuing chaos where I felt I needed eyes everywhere to keep track of what each character was up to, every move was well placed. It’s a bonkers, bawdy brawl of a show with a cast de force, catch it while you can – I’d go back and watch it again tomorrow.