Hope Theatre, London – until 17 March
If we’re to believe the rumours, dog lover, Queen Elizabeth I, insisted on William Shakespeare writing a mutt into his plays because it entertained her so.
Working on the same principle, Robin Hooper gives the best part in his new play, Foul Pages, to a hairy chap called Chop who likes nothing better than curling up by the fire and having his belly rubbed.
And, as we all know, dogs have a way of hogging the limelight. It doesn’t take much for an entire theatre audience to fall in love with a walk-on part by a canine and relegate the human cast to a footnote in the credits.
In Foul Pages, the dog in question is played by a hirsute James King whose comical quips and cynical asides are a highlight of an otherwise disappointing play.
Hooper is the former literary manager at the Royal Court so he undoubtedly knows his stuff – both about the theatre and William Shakespeare.
So it is sad to report that what lets this production down is the writing. It is billed as “an outrageous comedy” and “a rollicking romp full of scandalous secrets, backstage betrayals and lusty liaisons”.
But there’s precious little to laugh at. The dialogue just isn’t funny or bawdy enough. The piece can’t make up its mind whether it is a serious historical drama or a ribald period romp. In the event, it doesn’t succeed in being anything other than a mess.
Characters aren’t fleshed out or fully utilised. Some have so little to do that you wonder why they’re even here. Plot-lines aren’t developed and the huge cast of nine (in this very small theatre space) spend most of their time shifting furniture rather than acting.
Scenes are ridiculously short, interrupted by raucous music while set changes are made. There is no flow to the story, just one disjointed conversation after another.
Foul Pages is set in 1603, in the home of patron of the arts, Mary, the Countess of Pembroke. She commissions the poet du jour, William Shakespeare, to write a comedy that will seduce the king into releasing her lover, Sir Walter Raleigh, from a death sentence.
He sets about re-writing As You Like It but is hampered by the constant notes and suggestions from his patroness, who has ideas about casting, plot and its title.
“I refuse to call any play of mine ‘As If!” he declares, raising his eyebrows then putting his foot down about the title change.
Meanwhile his “boys” – actors Ed, Alex and Rob – bicker about who will play each part and end up being seduced by King James who is known to favour young male actors.
Ian Hallard’s Will isn’t on stage nearly enough, nor is the excellent Tom Vanson who gives a strong and engaging turn as the Scottish king.
In 90 minutes Hooper is trying to fit too much into too short a running time.
There’s a subplot about refugees, another about unrequited love, not enough about Will struggling with his rewrites, and a lot of bitching between the three, young, boy actors, which quickly becomes tiresome.
Hallard makes a fine Shakespeare, particularly when he’s playing opposite the interfering countess, but his appearances are few and far between.
Clare Bloomer delivers a beautifully spoken and sincere turn as the countess but it is Raleigh’s dog, Chop, who animates most of the scenes.
Foul Pages, not as funny, original or inspired as it likes to think it is, runs at The Hope Theatre, Islington.