Christopher Gray is impressed by the fun found in playwright’s only known solo effort
The rich relish for words seen in the writing of Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Dekker has twice been experienced by audiences at Stratford in recent months, in productions of The Roaring Girl and The Witch of Edmonton. Both of these were joint ventures with other playwrights, so it was unclear which lines were Dekker’s and which his collaborators’.
In The Shoemaker’s Holiday, his only surviving solo effort which premiered at the Rose Theatre in 1599, we can savour the ready wit and well-judged characterisation achieved when the writer goes it alone.
Nothing better suits this good-looking, well-dressed production than the gleefully rumbustious portrayal of the play’s central comic character, Sir Simon Eyre, by David Troughton. A fiercely proud shoemaker (“the Gentle Craft”) who eventually becomes Lord Mayor of London, Eyre is a real-life 15th-century figure who gave the pancake feast for apprentices alluded to in the play’s title.
Notable for his grandiloquence of phrase (“Stand by with your pishery-pashery, away!”) Eyre is seen at his risible best in the company of his spouse (“This wench with the mealy mouth that will never tire is my wife”). With ideas above her station from the start, Margery (Vivien Parry) is hilariously over-the-top once her husband has made his packet, stepping out in the majestic style of Queen Bess herself.
Eyre’s good fortune in a shipping coup has its origins in an introduction to Dutch mercantile interests made by one of his apprentices. ‘Hans’, so called, is not actually Dutch at all, despite hilarious attempts to pass himself off as such. He is in fact the young aristocrat Rowland Lacy (Josh O’Connor). Packed off to the French wars by his uncle Sir Hugh Lacy (Vincent Carmichael), who disapproves of his involvement with his beloved Rose Oatley (Thomasin Rand), the lad has crept back in disguise to continue his courtship.
Meanwhile, a parallel romantic story concerns one of the shoemaker’s journeymen, the newly married Ralph (Daniel Boyd), who returns wounded from the wars to find that his missus Jane (Hedynn Dylan) has been lured away by the wily gentleman Hannon (Jamie Wilkes). The scene in which he convinces her of Ralph’s demise is one of the play’s funniest.
Perhaps the funniest comes at the close when Jack Holden, an impressive RSC debutant, appears as the king to tie up all plot strands with regal splendour.
The Shoemaker’s Holiday
* Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
* Until March 7
* 0844 800 1110, rsc.org.uk