I still haven’t been to the Edinburgh Fringe. Ever. (Summer 2015 I will be there, come hell, high water or Scottish Independence). So I am always keen to see shows which get a run in London post-festival. I came across Civil Rogues completely by accident (Thank you Battersea Arts Centre – your retweet of their show was well timed), and loved the idea. It is 1649: the king has been executed, the Puritans are closing the theatres. Halfway through that evening’s performance of Romeo & Juliet, 3 male actors are forced to go on the run from the authorities – still in their dresses, petticoats and stage make-up.
We begin with Romeo (Ed David) and Juliet (Elliott Ross) trying to continue with their scene, in spite of the hammering at every door. In a desperate bid to give the audience as much of the play as possible, they up the speed and the romance of “but soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” is delivered with machine gun pace and the tenderness to match. It is quite a skill to speak that fast and Ed David had me helpless with laughter barely 30 seconds into the play. As Oliver Cromwell’s henchmen storm the theatre, the actors scatter in a rush for freedom. The script does go a little overboard on the swearing (I always think less is more), but the soldiers are more panto-villain-inept-sidekick than genuinely menacing and this fits in well with what is intended to be an evening of lighthearted fun.
The 3 actors who successfully escape – the naive Charles Hart (Elliott Ross), the diva-ish William Gascoigne (Laurie Davidson) and the acidic Richard Baxter (Sam Woolf) – find themselves blagging their way into the house of a Royalist supporter and persuading the other servants that they’re “the new girls” while they lay low and figure out what to do. They each flip between 3 identities, often within a split second: the male actors running for their lives, their Shakespearean characters, and their newly assumed feminine disguises.
This is very much a play for a theatrical audience with lots of references to other Shakespeare plays – the Henry V line “We few. We happy few. We band of brothers.” was very apt. When the lady of the house, the brightly optimistic Lady Margaret Cavendish (Kate Craggs) wants to lose a lot of money very quickly to stop Cromwell getting hold of her riches, she and her maid Phoebe (Danielle Winter) hatch a plan to stage a play (still a very expensive venture) and pour the money into the pockets of actors. The 3 new laundry girls, Cordelia, Bianca and Regina hint that they know the whereabouts of some actors who would be interested in performing again. But Regina (Sam Woolf) melodramatically insists that she shall never allow her daughters on the stage.
This wouldn’t be a farce without a heap of mistaken identities, disguises and hiding in laundry baskets, and it has this in spades. Baxter (as Regina) fiendishly tells Lady Cavendish that Mr Gascoigne the actor is here to see her, sending Gascoigne (as Bianca) into a panic as he/she tries to work out how to be both people in the same room at the same time. He persuades her to wear a blindfold and leaps around the room switching voices. Laurie Davidson makes this look both laboured and slick, exactly as you’d wish. Two of Cromwell’s cronies are mistaken for the other actors and one of the male servants, Daniel (Ed Davis again) falls in love with Cordelia/Charles Hart. Baxter deliberately engineers it for Daniel to play Romeo and Hart to play Juliet, only Daniel can’t get his head around it being “a man in a dress”. The moment before they kiss is hilariously awkward.
I felt that there was room for the play to have gone further with the farcial element – I was expecting to see the two soldiers unwittingly cast in the play and for one of the actors to find themselves having to switch genders at least once during the abridged Romeo and Juliet. Instead the play went largely went without a hitch and soldiers stormed the house as the starcrossed lovers lay dying. If they decide to revive this at a later date, they have a great concept to work from – I’d just like to see them tangle it up even further. But still, a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
Civil Rogues is on at The Pleasance Theatre, Carpenters Mews, North Road, London N7 9EF until Saturday 7th September 2014. For tickets and more information, go to https://www.pleasance.co.uk/event/civil-rogues-london#overview