"Impressive performance of early farce"
by Matthew Partridge for remotegoat on 25/02/15

Even in London, pre-Restoration theatre usually begins and ends with Shakespeare. If you’re lucky there may be a bit of Marlowe, even the occasional Middleton, Kyd or Fletcher. Up until know the only organised attempt to tackle any of the lesser known playwrights systematically is the Globe’s “Read not dead” series of script-in-hand rehearsed readings. However, Brice Stratford’s theare company, Owle Schreame, aims to give some of the other ‘undiscovered gems’ a proper airing. As part of this project they have put on “Ralph Roister Doister”, a farce that was written in 1553 by Nicholas Udall, and believed to be the first secular English play.

The plot is relatively simple: the buffoonish Ralph Roister Doister (Brice Stratford) falls in love with a rich widow, Dame Christian Custance (Emma Rose). Encouraged by his friend Matthew Merygreeke, he tries various methods to woo her, including gifts and a love letter. While the plot is a bit repetitive, there are some very strong comic moments. For example, after Ralph’s letter backfires, he demands an explanation from its hired author, who then demonstrates that it was the reader who was at fault. It is also easy to spot where Udall’s play influenced later dramatists. The most obvious of these is the title character, whose mixture of bluster and bragging anticipated Shakespeare’s Falstaff.

Both the set and the space are very limited and the cast occasionally lose the thread of the rhyming couplets, which becomes more apparent as the play progresses. The two-and-a-half hour running time could have been easily cut down by the use of some judicious editing. However, these issues seem minor when one takes into account that the cast rehearsed the play and learned their lines (including several songs) in less than a week. In any case, the cast's enthusiam, talent and charisma is overwhelming and makes any criticism seems like nit-picking Indeed, the occasional interaction with members of the audience, or gulps of beer between lines, makes it seem more authentic.

If Owle Schreame is able to maintain this level of quality in its future productions, it deserves a much wider audience. With tickets costing only £5 this production (which runs at the Bread and Roses in Clapham) is a genuine bargain.

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