Foul Pages is ferociously over the top - it packs in double entendres and tongue in cheek mannerisms.

Comedy is possibly the trickiest of theatrical genres, especially farce. It’s a style that all too often feels dated, as if slapstick comedy has remained in the past and today’s comedic scene has moved more into observational points of humour, or satire. Foul Pages is a show that harks back to the past too – not in its comedy, which is farcical in nature but done very well so as not to be awkward, but in its subject material. Renowned playwright Robin Hooper pens a world premiere that pits Shakespeare against James I in order to save the imprisoned Rayleigh from certain death.

Foul Pages The Hope Theatre

Ian Hallard

Director Matthew Parker is known for his work in farce – Thark at the Drayton Arms Theatre was his latest to be nominated for the Off West End Awards – and he brings an over the top style to this production too. Foul Pages is ferociously over the top, at least to begin with. It snips its scenes razor thin and jam packs in double entendres or tongue in cheek mannerisms, a cleverly constructed script that produces many outrageous connotations about homosexuality in the Stuart era.

The action is observed and narrated by Chop the dog (James King), a gift of a part that King characterises well and uses to great effect. For the most part, each character is crafted to allow the actor to ham up with all the effort they can muster. Actors Alex (Lewis Chandler) and Rob (Thomas Bird) are the young boys frequently enjoying the fruits of their touring actors’ life, noticed and pleasured by such older men as Will (Ian Hallard) and James (Tom Vanson). Whether a fop, a fruit or a fabulous eccentric, these four get stuck in with good humour and towing the right side of ridiculous. It’s a real tightrope and Parker manages it perfectly.

Foul Pages The Hope Theatre

Ian Hallard & Clare Bloomer

But then other elements creep into Foul Pages that are neither appropriately signposted nor realised. The country estate is teaming with religious refugees that Countess Mary (Clare Bloomer) is taking care of in secret, but her fervent faith and selfless attitude are insufficiently cemented – we query the point of this plot twist. Likewise, the spats between the two boys escalates far too quickly and intensely – their jealous natures aren’t initially taken seriously because of the light-hearted nature by which they are performed. This is the issue with farce – you can’t both laugh with it and take it seriously. The former has presence and purpose in Foul Pages, the latter becomes lost and disconnected.

In the end, Foul Pages leaves us unsatisfied. Not in the normal nature of farce, with which we pleasantly laugh along rather than emotionally connect, but in its move away into darker, more sinister tones. Parker is a gifted director at both of these styles of work, but the attempt to mesh them together is muddled and confusing.

 

 

★★★☆☆

Foul Pages runs at The Hope Theatre until 17 March 2018. For further information, please visit the venue website.