Foul Pages is a compelling hour and a half long play set in Wilton Hall, where the Countess of Pembroke has enlisted William Shakespeare himself to put on a play that will make the King look favourably on her lover Sir Walter Raleigh who languishes in prison, accused of a plot to depose him.
Some of the characters are more than a little familiar – who’s Shakespeare again? – but the story certainly is not.
The boys backstage flirt with one another, to varying degrees of success, there’s a jilted lead actor and another in denial as to how much he loves another man. There’s a King who denies himself love, but seems to feel it keenly, and a woman with more schemes up her sleeves than originally meets the eye. There’s even a talking dog – a ruff, a good bone gag and a surprisingly convincing bark, plus some of the best eating acting I’ve ever seen, which only adds to the fun here.
The play starts a little slow, but as the stakes get progressively higher, so too does the drama.
Among the actors, Ian Hallard stands out as William Shakespeare himself. He is the most reasonable Shakespeare I’ve ever seen, more serene in his genius than other portrayals. He’s a little sardonic, gently wry, and leaves you in no doubt, with a note of sure-footed confidence, that Shakespeare is the cleverest person in the room.
Tom Vanson as King James is also impressive in a role that could have been easily more hammed up. Instead Vanson takes the role to the brink, giving the King the very slightest edge of vulnerability alongside his camp and somewhat capricious nature.
If the play has any issues, it’s that it’s not quite as funny as it could be – some of the jokes landed flat whilst others I feel were skimmed over too quickly. I love a good meta-Shakespeare joke and too soon they passed without much notice.
I’d also like to have seen more of Olivia Onyehara’s maid Peg – Onyehara does a lot with a little and what moments she did have, I enjoyed.
The blend of modern music with the old setting works well here, as do the sound effects and lighting (strobe lighting is used to particular unsettling effect when the mood gets a little more sinister).
Everything is done to create as much of an impression of setting as possible, and it is never more evident than in the set changes that the actors are working with impressive fluidity in a space that could feel more cramped, but never does.
The ending comes a bit abruptly but if director Matthew Parker knows anything, it’s that all good things end with a dance break. It’s a lovely way to round off the evening.
Reviewed by Laura Stanley