"Jarringly modern but pleasantly entertaining"
by Edwin Reis for remotegoat on 11/03/15

A Jacobean comedy presented in Bankside’s original Tudor theatre – at first glance you may be forgiven for assuming a rather predictable notion of what is in store as you buy your ticket for Mercurius Theatre’s ‘A Chaste Maid In Cheapside’ – but you would be mistaken.

The Rose Playhouse is certainly not short of character. There may be no toilets or central heating, but the atmosphere is insatiable – you can practically smell the history of the place eking out of the very walls. Considering this, the playing space is somewhat of a disappointment – essentially a small studio theatre with very limited technical facilities, perching tantalisingly on the edge of the cavernous belly of the historic theatre, eerily lit by red strip lighting from the pool of water at the centre. The Playhouse is currently trying to raise funds to fully excavate its remaining foundations, and with enough finance, this could be transformed into an incredible space.

Thomas Middleton’s classic is precluded by 50s tunes in the foyer, which allude to the somewhat unnecessary ‘updating’ of the aesthetics. The subject matter is so of its time that an attempt to shoehorn it into the 20th century simply doesn’t make sense, and aside from a few ostentatious costumes adds very little to the piece. Certainly in a venue as imbued with tradition as this, a more conventional approach would be far more suitable.

Jenny Eastop directs an able cast, composed mostly of Drama Studio graduates, who deliver clear characterisation and tackle the tricky language with ease. Particularly entertaining are Timothy Harker as the mischievous Allwit, and Fergus Leathem and Alana Ross as the lovingly bickering Sir and Lady Kix. Fine support from the rest of the cast, and a simple design from Felix Trench, allow the action to flow smoothly, albeit with jarring interruptions from more pop jingles.

The main issue, however, is rather a clash of style and surroundings. For the production to really fly, and the comedy to reach its raucous climax, large, bold characterisation and physical, slapstick humour is required, and yet the actors are unable to deliver as such in so small a space. The intimate stage provokes naturalistic performances which do not match the energy and zeal the text demands. This is emphasised in the most intriguing moment of the production, when the action breaks the ‘5th wall’ – taking place within the monstrous cave beyond the stage. The distance from the audience, coupled with the gargantuan echoes, cause the actors to adopt far more physical performances, which create the funniest and most memorable scene of the evening, as Moll is reprimanded by her parents for attempting to elope with Touchwood.

An unnatural play performed in a naturalistic manner results in certain scenes not quite chiming, such as two storylines playing out on stage at once, without characters noticing each other. However, given the restrictions imposed upon them, the director and cast deliver an entertaining and enjoyable evening of toned down Jacobean farce.

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