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The Hypocrite review at Hull Truck Theatre – ‘boisterous and noisy’

A scene from The Hypocrite. Photo: Duncan Lomax

Richard Bean’s boisterous new comedy, set in an England about to be riven by Civil War, is one of the flagship productions in the 2017, Hull City of Culture programme. A co-production between Hull Truck and the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Hypocrite is stuffed with Hull history and humour.

Mark Addy plays Sir John Hotham, the 17th century governor of Hull, who – as the prologue-cum-epilogue explains – ended up losing his head on the block.

Bean’s play goes backwards in time to explain how this came about. What follows is a would-be romp filled with cross-dressing Cavaliers, self-flagellating Puritans, Levellers, Ranters, scholars, prostitutes, oyster-hawkers, and a bed designed by Inigo Jones with reported aphrodisiac properties.

There’s a lot of sweat and energy in Phillip Breen’s production, a lot of people dashing hither and dither, a lot of noise. This cacophony is sometimes enjoyable but it’s also lacking in coherence, and this lack becomes increasingly problematic as the production progresses.

While governor, Hotham refused to admit Charles I to the town and that scene forms one of the comic high-points of the production. Bean’s plot is a knotty thing involving dowries and foreskins. There ‘s an abundance of word play, a few post-modern gags and much fun with the Hull accent, but most of the comedy is broad as the Beverley Gate, replicated in Max Jones’ set. It has a misguided faith in the comic value of the word ‘arsenal’ and it also has a nasty edge at times. Bean takes pops at everyone, as is his way, and has Hotham and his wife Sarah trading insults: she calls him “a half-wiped arse, he calls her “scrotum-breathed vale of nothing.” He also repurposes some of his old gags – there’s a doddery servant called Drudge, entertainingly played by Danielle Bird, who is repeatedly knocked about and dropped into cellars, just like the ancient waiter in One Man, Two Guvnors.

This is a story worth telling and Bean clearly knows his history, but his play is over-stuffed and its bagginess becomes increasingly frustrating. The farcical finale could do with being a lot tauter, as it is it consists of people hiding in commodes and rutting behind curtains with little in the way of comic pay-off.

The performers throw themselves into things (sometimes literally). Addy is game and engaging throughout as Hotham, selfish and something of a flip-flopper, but at least he’s an intriguing figure. Caroline Quentin, as Sarah, on the other hand, is under-written and underused. There’s some solid support from Jordan Metcalfe as a puppyish Duke of York, and Laura Elsworthy as a servant who’s smarter than her masters, and the references to Hull’s history, to local ghosts, to pubs and rugby teams, land well enough. There’s comedy in recognition and reflection and Bean taps that. Hopefully the timing will get tighter.

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Boisterous, noisy, if baggy, comedy set around a key episode in Hull’s history