BlackSun Theatre Company
The Shoemaker’s Holiday
The Actor’s Church Covent Garden
13 – 14 Aug 2010
A review by Mags Gaisford for EXTRA! EXTRA!
We are in a Church. A buxom, red – lipped, corseted woman sidles up to my brother. ‘Is he yours?’ ‘No,’ I reply. ‘You can have him!’ At which she laughs loudly, perhaps uneasily, and promptly moves away. ‘Fair enough’, we say to each other. The mingling of the cast, in magnificent Elizabethan dress, (and sporty plimsolls) with the crowd, in anticipation of their own show, sets the tone for BlackSuns’ production of Thomas Dekkers’ The Shoemaker’s Holiday, which is a tour de force in integrative choreography.
There is gratuitous hawking of phlegm in reference to the French, with whom we are at war, apparently. Sir Hugh Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, anxious to prevent the budding romance between Roland, his son, and Rose Oatley, the Mayor’s daughter, has packed him off as the Colonel of a company to fight. But like a hardy weed, love finds its own way through the cracks in Lacy’s scheme. Roland sends Ralph, a shoemaker, in his stead (tearing him away from his own fiancée Jane), disguises himself as a Dutch cobbler called Hans, and persuades the ebullient head – honcho Simon Eyre to take him on in his company, hoping to reach Rose under cover. Cue some highly camp comedy characters sent to complicate events with their misplaced and decadent desires, some ensuing dramatic ironic knots made of silly string, some irresistible Monty Python – style coconut horse riding and a healthy dose of bawdy humour. Then the bumbling plot takes off for fantasy land as Eyre, the shoemaker, in an unlikely act of social rebellion, is made Mayor and a gauche King knights Roland for his lovelorn cowardice.
At least I think that’s what happened. It’s clear from the programme’s jocularly bewildering plot synopsis that Jemma Gross’s production is not aiming for the careful, detailed delivery of a meaningful story. Brief internet research reveals Thomas Dekker’s dramas were characterised by their ‘slightness and hurry’, or criticised for their ‘hasty and careless composition’. As a performance, The Shoemaker’s Holiday hits the ground running. Cast members dance and skip down the aisles, scramble over pews, scream from the rafters and drag audience members up into the pulpit to read out lines. The result is a dizzying impression of comedic chaos. The play is normally performed in the open air, but on the night I went to see it, the rain had driven it inside. The tragedy is, the acoustics in St Paul’s Church are perfect for the solemn sermonising of ministers, and not for the rapid fire of Elizabethan jokes.
Dekker’s skills lay in his kindly, if mocking eye for individuals’ idiosyncrasies and his vivid rendering of contemporary society and not in the structures of his plots. There were no changes of tone in the play, and nothing, therefore, to punctuate particular scenes or emphasise elements. Its relentless pace, and the deeply unfortunate blurred acoustics swallowing up the witty details, made characters and words slide together, offering little by way of incentive for someone with no previous knowledge of the drama to keep up. All the more shame, because the cast was solidly coherent, seamlessly dancing around one another under Ian Brener’s inspired movement direction. But few actors had found a way of being heard, so that rich individual talents were undersold. Perhaps David Fensom came closest, with his delightfully hopeless would – be womaniser Hammon. Elizabeth Webster’s Rose’s vulgar adolescent hysterics and forceful lust gave a refreshing comic edge to your standard romantic heroine.
There were moments of artful visual communication, such as the burnt – out revellers lazily propping up a sign with the moon on it from the pulpit, only to be nudged awake and reminded to spin the sign around to show the sun before falling asleep again. The antics of Eyre’s shoemakers and their petty politics were well staged. Alas, around me, I saw other audience members looking equally strained and lost as I was, so that the biggest irony is that for all its emphasis on audience participation, this production ultimately left us feeling excluded. See it outside, in a secluded garden, and it may be a very different story. It will probably feel less like gate crashing a private party in a strange world.
Tickets £5 (free admission under 5 years old)
The Actors Church, St Paul’s, Bedford Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9ED
Friday 13th August 7pm, Saturday 14th August 2pm and 6pm