Pros: A really charming production of a play by a lesser known playwright that is energetic, concise and above all fun.
Cons: If you love big sets and thousands of lights you may be disappointed.
I will admit that the prospect of watching a little-known Jacobean comedy on the excavated site of a four hundred year old theatre did not initially fill me with untold excitement. After all, Jacobean comedy and excavated theatres aren’t necessarily my favourite things in the world. However, Mercurius’ production of Thomas Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One is excellent and I really encourage you to see it.
First, the setting. The Rose Theatre on Bankside is supposedly the oldest known theatre in the area, and just a stone’s throw from the Globe. The site is unrestored and the seating is very basic, with the small performance space overlooking the excavated site of the original theatre. Visitors must imagine for themselves how the venue would have looked from its foundations. There is a humble charm to the way that The Rose demands more from its audiences’ imaginations than the Globe does, with its hands-on “must catch the tourists” approach.
It is therefore completely fitting that Jenny Eastop’s straightforwardly entertaining production is set here. Middleton’s play, written around 1605, is a Jacobean comedy of the Jacobean-est order. The sneaky protagonist, Theodorus Witgood, hires a former mistress to pretend to be his wealthy fiancée so that the various people to whom he owes money will either stop asking him for it or give him more. There are various twists and turns along the way and everyone seems to try to play a trick on someone else. The production does not rely on the mechanics of the plot (which can get a little confusing at times) for its strengths. Instead, it is hurled forward by really engaging performances, which capture the essence of the various character types perfectly, and some well-executed physical comedy. Cameron Robertson and Stephen Good are excellent as the rival usurers, but Michael Watson-Gray and Alana Ross deserve mention for providing the background characters with such variation and fizz.
Eastop’s direction is really strong; the action is subtly transposed to 1940s black market Britain and the need to duck and dive to make a quick buck feels relevant in this setting. We only really get a feel of time and place through the costumes and transition music, but nothing more is needed. The set consists of just two chairs that are manipulated well to indicate the different settings. At one point the action moves down amongst the excavated ruins of the original theatre – a good sign of inventiveness but unfortunately the dialogue gets a little lost in the cavernous space.
It should also be noted how well the play has been cut. Ninety minutes feels like the perfect length for a simple production of this nature – it takes us through the intricacies of the plot at such a speed that it is always engaging. It’s hard to watch a production of a play from this time-period without thinking of Shakespeare. However, you feel that it is more liberating for a director to tackle a lesser known playwright like Middleton, as there is no stigma attached to chopping and changing the text.
If you want a light-hearted evening of good entertainment in a fascinating historical site, then this is just the thing.