views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Foul Pages
The Hope Theatre
22nd February 2018


The ensemble of Foul Pages

Photography © LHPhotoshots

Leather, skinny jeans, half-naked men and pulsating dance music - you might think you've stepped into a gay club, but no, this is the theatre darling. It might not be quite as you know it, but it looks a lot like as you like it. A play within a play, a whimsical ruler making questionable judgements, bawdy jokes and lusty encounters. Ooh, Shakespeare himself would be proud. In Foul Pages, Robin Hooper uses many of the Bard's familiar devices and brings them kicking, screaming and flirting outrageously into the 21st century.

The year is 1603 and Mary, Countess of Pembroke (Clare Boomer) has commissioned popular writer Will (Ian Hallard) to use his literary genius to save the life of her former lover Sir Walter Raleigh. The new King of England, James I (Tom Vanson) intends to send Raleigh to the gallows, however, Mary believes Will's latest opus can move him into being a little more forgiving. Whilst Will scribbles away, doing his best to ignore Mary's 'helpful' artistic suggestions, his merry band of actors take advantage of the downtime between rehearsals to get up to whatever they think they can get away with. It's all fun and games - until it's not.

Foul Pages begins as a light-hearted if mildly dirty romp with innuendo galore and evolves into a bit of a whodunnit, with a more serious tone. Actors Alex (Lewis Chandler) and Rob (Thomas Bird), along with Will's brother Ed (Greg Baxter), get tangled up with Mary's maid Peg (Olivia Onyehara) and with each other. There's also a minor subplot thrown in involving the persecution of Catholics. Although this gives some more depth to Mary's character and helps anchor the play in the right era, this diversion doesn't bring enough to the party to justify the time spent on it. With the entire play only 90 minutes straight through and the cast coming to a grand total of nine people, there just seem like better things to do with the time. Like spend more time with the King or the Bard, for example.

Vanson makes for a thoroughly petulant and ridiculous man with more power than he deserves. Whilst his version of James doesn't publically admit to all of his desires, his emotions are always out, even if he isn't. We witness his struggle in reconciling his personal life to his kingly duties and take more delight in that conflict than perhaps we should. His frivolity is balanced out by his rather more serious bodyguard Mears (Jack Harding), who walks around with the weight of being the person who actually has to see through his master's whimsical decisions. Hallard too puts in a strong performance that feels disappointingly fleeting. It's not that any of the protagonists are underdeveloped per se; we're just greedy. Hallard's Will is restrained in dealing with Mary, calmly negotiating payment and tactfully dealing with her meddling rather than getting angry. If we didn't know who he was inspired by, we might take him for a traditional suit rather than a creative type.

The action is well-paced, with director Matthew Parker making it easy to follow what's going on and stay lost in the moment. The script shifts between so many different twists and turns that his skilful direction is required to smooth them all out. Further help in linking Hooper's ideas together is given by a canine narrator, who offers us surprisingly insightful and eloquent commentary throughout. Chop (James King) moves like a dog, with King putting in a wonderfully physical performance However, our doggy friend thinks like the quasi-human we all regard our pets to be. Seeing the world from his perspective is at times entertaining and others sobering.

As you would expect from any sold-out show at The Hope, the staging is rather... intimate, shall we say. At times, the actors are practically standing in the audience and we half-wonder if the fabric swooshing down the clothesline that runs from one end of the room to the other is likely to fall off and hit us in the face. (Spoiler alert: it doesn't. But it feels like a close call.) Rachael Ryan's dark wood panelling on the back wall masks a hidden space where secret voices chatter, as well as disguising the way we took into the room. The simple design helps layer up an overwhelming sense of being immersed in the story unfolding around us.

With all the historical liberties taken, Foul Pages feels like a guilty pleasure. Although the writing could do with some tightening up, there's no denying that Hooper's script is a lot of fun and the acting is really rather delicious.

Foul Pages ran from 20th February to 17th March 2018 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)

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