Eastern Angles at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich
for The Reviews Hub
Toad Hall? Wolf Hall? The inspiration behind this bit of harmless fun is mostly Mantel – a Tudor rose projected onto the boards, Thomas Crudwell given a brief mention - but the Bard is in the mix too, together with Adele and Geoffrey Chaucer.
Fans of Eastern Angles' alternative Christmas entertainment will rejoice at the return of Mrs Giblets the dog, and thrice rejoice at the return of writing team Julian Harries and Pat Whymark. Pat also directs and acts as Musical Director.
The prologue owes a good deal to Shakespeare. The audience is divided into Suffolk and Norfolk – the traverse staging one of many challenges in this friendly but cramped auditorium.
“You there! Explain the plot!” The gauntlet thrown in jest to one of the cleverer, cheekier members of the audience. She can't, and there are no spoilers here, but the action begins with Sir Roger de Polfrey (excellently done by Ipswich Christmas veteran Richard Mainwaring) bemoaning the state of his stately pile – he's got damp in his front elevation, and even the king has heard word of his enormous crack. The jolly opening number has the various cowboy contractors sporting hammer, awl and ball-cock. A reluctant pretender to the throne, Roger has two daughters and a fool called Perch. There are but five actors, but the list of characters is long and eclectic: Gerald the Happy Herald, Sir John Dum-di-Dee, alchemist of choice, Agnes, ancient granny and Chaucerian, Tom Foolery, Ant and Dec, body snatchers, Mr Softee, a further fool. A fine bestiary too, including a fox, a bluebird, a rabbit, and legendary devil dog Black Shuck. The audience stands in for the stoats, although there are stuffed stoats on the headgear of the secret society meeting in the crypt. No cuddly stoats on sale in the foyer, either, surely a merchandise opportunity missed.
Mrs Giblets, who plays Goblet the dog, surviving the vivisection table and bringing a wonderfully surreal touch to the final pages, did appear in the foyer at the end, a fond farewell to her fans and a fundraiser for Eastern Angles' Once Upon a Lifetime project.
Matt Jopling is a likeable Perch (and his rival Mr Softee), who is besotted with Sir Roger's fair daughter Rosamund (Geri Allen). The less alluring daughter, Hedwig, is played with enthusiasm, a beard, and a fine sense of the ridiculous by Patrick Neyman, who's also the Alchemist and a superb hooray Henry VIII. Violet Patton-Ryder mangles the Middle English with aplomb as Agnes, and is also the feisty Cook.
The choreography is lively and inventive on the tiny stage, and there are some splendid songs: The Fox is in the Thicket, for example, or the Unsuited duet for Rosamund and Perch, or the hilarious No Taste for Entertaining, in which Goblet shouts out foodstuffs to fit the lyrics … “there's an offal lot at steak”.
There's plenty of cod-piece humour (“What's that sticking out of your arras?”), some much-loved gags that were old when Will Somers was a boy - “Have you got quoits?” and variants, “Walk this way!” - but nothing is overplayed, the audience is involved but not humiliated, and there's an educational element, too. The collective noun for stoats is a caravan, apparently.
As the man says - “excellent fooling, i'faith” - “just the Tudor ticket!”.
production photograph: Mike Kwasniak