Foul Pages review at Hope Theatre, London – ‘enjoyably silly romp in ruffs’

The cast of Foul Pages at Hope Theatre, London The cast of Foul Pages at Hope Theatre, London

William Shakespeare wrote several so-called ‘problem plays’, a series of works not easily categorised as comedy or tragedy.

Robin Hooper’s Foul Pages, a fictionalising of the first staging of As You Like It, suffers from its own particular problem: it resembles many things at the same time, but none of them quite make sense.

With Britain muddling through a plague year, the court relocates to Wiltshire. Mary, Countess of Pembroke (Clare Bloomer), coerces the poet Will (Ian Hallard) into premiering his play to surreptitiously convince the monarch to release Sir Walter Raleigh.

Hallard plays Shakespeare as an affable middle manager, a pliable head-down worker finding the best means of doing his job while dealing with the demands of his boss, King James I (Tom Vanson). Olivia Onyehara is similarly stoic as the countess’s maid, Peg, a grounded character resolutely carrying on as events around her spiral out of control.

Initially it’s all romping in ruffs, a 17th century shagathon between the troupe of young male actors. The jokes are repetitive – often involving an anthropomorphised dog – but it’s enjoyable and silly. And it’s made better by some brilliant costuming fusing period dress with 1980s punk kit, making everyone resemble Jacobean club kids.

Unfortunately it then morphs into a paper-thin revenge mystery spliced with a plot to harbour religious fugitives.

Despite Matthew Parker’s punchy direction interspersing short scenes with blasts of techno music, plus a committed cast, the earlier momentum and humour fizzle out. One problem too many.

Ian Hallard stars in a punchily directed, if convoluted, sex and Shakespeare comedy