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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Directed by Perry Mills, and performed at St John’s Clerkenwell. There’s relatively contemporary costumes. David Troughton and Louisa Nightingale supply props, table chairs a helmet for Tediousness, a football for Honest Recreation, some dresses and wigs and a few turquoise candles. Musical direction’s by Tristan Barford musicians Nilay Sah and Abhi Gowda and others, with technical support from John Cherry and Suzie Vogiardis. Movement’s by Struan Leslie.


It’s increasingly clear the Edwards’ Boys aren’t just the premier early modern performance youth company, but can be mentioned in the same breath as adult ones. In fact they’re dong exactly what Shakespeare and Jonson complained of: bearding their elders’ excellence. They’re now the go-to for fresh invention, rare repertoire, sheer playfulness; burnishing a track record of eleven years.


When they’re not at the Globe senior people from the Globe come to see them. And this writer turned down a National Theatre press night ticket (Peer Gynt) to make their one London performance. Peer Gynt will be made good at the weekend, but by then the Edwards’ Boys will have performed in Genoa.


They’ve already taken Wit and Science to Stratford and Oxford. Written by John Redford chorus master of St Paul’s around 1540 it’s one of those pieces termed Tudor Interludes, between say the 15th Mystery Plays and Everyman, and the first recognizable published play Gorbeduc from 1567. Though firmly Renaissance in temper, it’s still in the trappings of allegory, but one that’s as pointed as Everyman: both precise and subtle. We know it spawned imitations and revisions like The Marriage of Wit and Science. In fact that’s the subject, or the narrative tribulations leading to it.


Directed as ever by Perry Mills, this production’s performed at St John’s Clerkenwell. It’s a team effort with relatively contemporary costumes bar the wonderful Fool’s technicolour dreamcoat. David Troughton and Louisa Nightingale supply props, table chairs a helmet for Tediousness, a football for Honest Recreation, some dresses and wigs and a few turquoise candles. Musical direction’s by Tristan Barford, musicians Nilay Sah, Abhi Gowda and others, with technical support from John Cherry and Suzie Vogiardis. Movement’s by Struan Leslie.


If Ronald Searle’s Molesworth in Elizabethan garb stalks the programme notes, you get the point. Learning’s serious not Tedious, but Tedious has to be trounced. That’s where we start.


Or would. The first three pages are famously missing. Those revisions give us a idea, but fear not. Dr Edward O Usness (University of Parnassus) is here as Jack Hawkins literally sends himself to sleep with the long loutishness of learning. Mills as ever has edited – and here necessarily added his own material: the result’s ingenious and convincingly in keeping. It should be adopted.


The plot’s simple. Nimble young Wit (Felix Kerrison-Adams) the son of Nature (offstage) hopes to marry Science (winsome Tom Howitt in a wig that nearly covers his face), who’s the child of anxious parents Reason – Abhi Gowda again – and Experience, Johan Valiaparambil. They’re adamant that Wit will have to go on a Parnassus course, with Nilay Sah’s Instruction, Ritvik Nagar’s Confidence, and later more importantly as Honest Recreation (a fetching swimsuit body-hugging suit with HR stamped on its yellow) and of course that football. He’s helped by Yiannis Vogiardis’ Diligence (and later Quickness) and John Cherry’s Study. Wit’s given a looking glass to see he’s a man of parts, so to speak. Quite an innovation for 1540. All goes well for a bit.


But Hawkins stalks. At the bottom of the cast list there’s this encomium: ‘I taught Hawkins for an entire year – and he didn’t learn a thing!’ Hawkins (triumphing in the title role of Marston’s The Malcontent in March) is of course consummate. Having sent himself to sleep he enacts now a kind of proto Giant Despair. The text’s stage direction are specific. ‘He cum’th in with a vizer on his hed {and a club in his hand}. The verse he speaks is the four-stress all-purpose line Skelton had made famous a generation earlier.


What kaitives be those

That will not once flee

From Tediousnes’ nose

But thus disese me

Out of my nest….


You get the point. It’s high-access vulgar-tongued virtuoso language, metaphorically sharp and flexible. Many of the speeches are of this order, some of course more decorous but easily recited as well as apparently light in learning.


Hawkins hulks glowers and explodes in exchanges with Honest Recreation, Diligence and Instruction. Armed in a helmet and baseball Tediousness whirls a table knocking the lot of them out like a revolving turnstile out of Buster Keaton. And in a wild sally he actually kills Wit.


Wit’s revival speeds with HR and Valiaparambil‘s Comfort, Vogiardis’ Quickness and Sah’s Strength. The perils don’t end there naturally, and Will Groves fantastically tricked out in wig and a fetching blue outfit does the job of any good working girl around St Paul’s as Idleness.


He’s a star turn with all the gender fluidity you could hope for from the current Terry regime at the Globe. Kerrison-Adams has more chance to shine here, in the lap of Idleness and later as he confronts Science in the suit Idleness in her voluptuous embraces has left him in – a technicolour dreamcoat, or the top half at least. And a smirch of makeup. There follows a whiplash dialogue between Idleness and Ignorance, Jyan Dutton’s quickfire part volleys with Idleness in some of the most modern exchanges here.


There’s a small masque with the temptations Fame (Gowda), Favour (John Cherry), Sah’s Riches and Vogiardis’ Worship (clearly of a secular kind). Labelled with the turquoise lamps they enact the first of the two songs ‘Exceeding Measure with paines continewall’. It’s a delicious rendition and again enlivened with singing and the playing of instruments – particularly Sah on violin and Gowda on winds.


It’s here that Science’s character – refusing to sing along – shades feminine roles (traditionally shunning these attributes designed for men, and thus pure). And a robustness when Wit enters fantastically tricked out.


Science though pretends to know nothing of Wit. He attempts to kiss her and gets roundly slapped three times. It’s the kind of thing the Edwards’ Boys excel at, just as Kerrison-Adams’ character is roundly punished earlier on with a sadistic glee, being beaten (ingeniously, there’s a real thwack) for erring. The slapstick’s precise, winking at 1540s mores whilst hissing gently at the more sadistic masters of recent years. Something that’s almost of the past; not quite.


Science upbraids Wit ‘I take thee for no naturall foole… but for a nawghty, vicious foole/Brought up with Idelnes in her scoole’… and she hands him that looking glass. He spies his made-up technicoloured self. The horror! Kerrison-Adams’ winningly appalled reaction is another highlight. After a balletic negotiation with parents we’re led out with ‘Welcum, mine own’ after a few more sallies with Wit, Science, Experience and Reason who closes.


As ever the level of virtuosity and sheer joy of this ensemble sustains itself – over a curious if subtle, commandingly written entertainment. It’s remarkable for its emphasis on Renaissance Humanism and education, the relative mildness of its chastisement. Given the tender years of its target audience, that’s understandable. But its existing at all attests to an emphasis on new values inculcated at grammar-school age. Ones that ushered in a great age – headed by grammar-educated boys.


The boys here allow their innate playfulness and flair a free rein. It extends in this production to filling in textual spaces over an allegorical skeleton: they render a faint scroll alive with wit.