As a kind of subplot to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current long-term Complete Works project, deputy artistic director Erica Whyman is overseeing a quartet of productions of plays by contemporaries of Shakespeare that focus on women. The season takes its name, “Roaring Girls”, from Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s Jacobean comedy (c1610) centred on Moll Cutpurse – less the historical figure born Mary Frith than the legend that persisted even after she recanted her sins of general roistering and dressing in male apparel.
Yet the Moll of the play is also virtuous after her fashion: she swaggers and mocks, but also resists several opportunities for theft and helps young Sebastian to marry his beloved by herself posing as the (in Sebastian’s father’s eyes) even less palatable alternative.
This is a “city comedy”, with several plot strands on the go; most of them are in effect the same plot, of a city wife seeing through the blandishments of one of Sebastian’s gallant young friends.
These plays are generally rumbustious affairs, and director Jo Davies punctuates her production with bouncily blaring Two-Tone-meets-Berlin-Kabarett music from an all-female quartet with nimble bass guitar work by Sarah Rose Higgins. Yet Davies also dresses affairs in a largely Victorian style, as if to suggest that that age was less about prudishness than furtive curiosity. Men repeatedly make remarks that dressing a woman in breeches acts as a spur to desire, and Moll herself seems sexually ambiguous.
Lisa Dillon makes a most successful “drag king”, with short quiff, tattoos and oodles of braggadocio. Her performance is not so much impersonation – pretending to be something that Moll isn’t – but personification – giving form to something more intangible that she is.
For the rest, matters are at their best when at their most frantic, in the crisis/resolution phase. Tony Jayawardena is a treat as Openwork the tailor, one of the cuckold-to-be husbands, and Geoffrey Freshwater is a fine all-purpose ne’er-do-well Ralph Trapdoor.
This is hardly a neglected masterpiece, but one of a number of small gems from the period that we too often overlook.