Robin Hooper’s Foul Pages is a clever, beautifully acted slice of life in Jacobean history that left me wanting more.
Under the stylish hand of Matthew Parker, the play, which leaves characters, scenes, and plot lines slightly underdeveloped, Foul Pages at the Hope is never the less every bit as entertaining as it’s premise promises. The plot follows the Countess of Pembroke (Clare Bloomer), former lover of the late Queen’s advisor, Sir Walter Raleigh. She endeavour’s to win King James 1’s favour and have him free the soon-to-be beheaded Raleigh.
After hearing the King has a penchant for actors and is a fan of the Bard’so work, Pembroke commissions a performance of As You Like It at her home. The audience learn of her own ambitions to write, the complicated relationships between the charismatic company of actors, the thoughts of her anthropomorphic dog (a captivating performance by James King), the King’s relationship with his secretly sensitive body guard, ghosts, ghouls and religious fugitives (oh my!) attempted murder, multiple love triangles, and the fight to play Rosalind.
The above seems like a lot to squeeze into a play of ninety minutes, and unfortunately it was. The greatest shame is how brilliantly intriguing all of it is. I wanted not to cut some of the plot lines, but to expand them, and give them more space to be enjoyed.
This was helped in no small fashion by the strong performances delivered by the cast of 9. Every character was fully formed despite their lack of stage time. Tom Vanson as King James was a man literally reverberating with his suppressed desires. His infatuation with young actor Robbie was palpable. Portraying the King’s object of affection with such a balanced, knowing innocence, Thomas Bird commanded the small, intimate space.
The play was backed by a stunning set and costume design by Rachael Ryan. The ruffs and denim jacket combo was inspired, and the effective set truly felt like we were at the grand Wilton House, far away from snowy Upper Street. Matthew Parker’s direction meant that the short scenes flowed perfectly well, and allowed the energy to continue to build through to the play’s rather shocking final act.
There is more than enough humour, history and hysterics to carry the audience through two acts and an interval. It’s not very often I wish for a play to be longer, but I was charmed by commitment, skill and finesse delivered by the entire team, both on an off the stage. Don’t miss Foul Pages as it offers something much of the London theatre scene is missing: fun.