Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Smoking, drinking, dancing, entertainment – it’s all been banned in the name of establishing the right moral environment for London’s citizens. Time for some revolting peasants, you feel, to restore sanity and enjoyment. And here they come, led by the whirlwind that is Moll Cutpurse.
It’s London and smoking, drinking in the streets, dancing and just about any other activity that could be remotely classed as enjoyable has been banned by the Lord Chief Justice. But this is not 21st Century Britain trying to quell rioting youths. We are in the very different yet uncannily familiar London of four hundred years ago.
The morally uptight Lord Chief Justice, John Popham, is about to meet his nemesis in the dashing Moll Cutpurse who, by some strange quirk of fate and the scriptwriter’s vivid imagination, just happens to be his twin, separated at birth by their dastardly father who was intent on retaining just a male heir. Can Moll and her quartet of rebellious minions outwit the justices and restore frivolity to the streets of the capital? Or will we all be condemned to lives of boredom and civility?
Dumbshow’s production, written well before the recent riots in London, has turned out to be a prescient piece of theatre. Played very much throughout in true commedia dell’arte style, Moll’s rebels are very much the product of a downtrodden society, struggling to break free from the authoritarian justices who roam the streets looking for wrongdoers to arrest, try and (hopefully) hang. All sounds a bit familiar, except the hanging bit perhaps. But at least these justices have met their match in Moll, whose Machiavellian skills enable her to outwit their every move.
The acting is particularly impressive, with the quartet that double as the rebels and the fiendish justices standing out. As the rebels, Lotte Allan, Hester Bond, Nicola Cutcher and the wonderfully high camp Jack Cole are attired in patchwork rags of bright colours, gawdy wigs and even more striking make-up and give a wonderful performance of physical and spoken theatre, weaving the story between them with quick-fire dialogue, great expression and inventive movement. As the justices, they are clad entirely in black with grotesque white facial masks, revelling in their grotesque techniques for quelling all forms of merriment and meetings and extracting confessions from their victims.
Yet the energy and verve inherent in these excellent performances is more than matched by a tour de force showing from Fiona Hampton as Moll Cutpurse. Manipulative, mendacious even, she is clearly intent on righting the wrongs inflicted on her at birth using the restoration of fun and freedom to London as little more than a convenient excuse to create mayhem in the city. Ed Hancock gives nicely understated support at the rather pompous and formal Popham whilst Lucy Pearman is innocence personified as Popham’s newly wed wife – until, that is, the rebels get to her.
The set is a simple backdrop featuring a montage of 16th Century London and the cast make superb use of the space available on stage as well as conjuring up entrances and exits from a series of unlikely and inventive places, all of which keeps the feeling of farce, pace and comedy going. But whilst the mix of ancient and modern works well, the plot and narrative do get a bit lost towards the end of the piece and the disturbing denouement arrives in something of a rush. However, that’s a minor blip in what is otherwise a riot of a piece.