Un­like­able Rochester leads way in like­able play

Gloucestershire Echo - - NEWS - Si­mon Lewis

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“YOU will not like me” in­sists John Wil­mot, the in­dul­gent 2nd Earl of Rochester at the be­gin­ning of Stephen Jef­freys’ ab­sorb­ing tale of the most no­to­ri­ous rake of his day. Given a touch of in­fi­delity, lech­ery and other vices to match, his dec­la­ra­tion would seem wholly jus­ti­fied. By the end, how­ever, I defy you not to feel at least a tinge of sym­pa­thy for this dis­si­pated aris­to­crat, who, against the odds, de­feats his many demons, most no­tably the bot­tle, and finds a de­served and last­ing peace. It’s also down to a tour-de-force per­for­mance in the ti­tle role from Greg As­ton, who proves once again how easy it is to like the bad guy. As­ton also di­rects this quasi-restora­tion com­edy, in­deed most of the cast dou­ble as the back­stage crew, and their com­bined ef­forts fash­ioned a splen­did show.

It is the late 17th cen­tury, and, with the bless­ing of King Charles II, women are break­ing into the theatre. Sup­ported by his royal bene­fac­tor, Wil­mot is pulling in big crowds to ap­pre­ci­ate these pi­o­neer­ing ac­tresses. He is also caus­ing fric­tion, and the per­son­al­ity clashes swiftly mount up.

New kids on the drama block Blank Can­vas Theatre have set out their stall with this pro­duc­tion of Jef­freys’ en­ter­tain­ing play-within-a-play, and the ver­sa­tile cast is in fine form through­out. Robert Bar­ton-an­cliffe is hi­lar­i­ous as Lord Charles Sackville, David Singer in­jects a whiff of calm dig­nity as re­spected play­wright Sir Ge­orge Etherege, while Paul Scott makes for a con­vinc­ing and au­thor­i­tar­ian Merry Monarch. I par­tic­u­larly en­joyed Becks Gran­tjones’ Ophe­lia-es­que por­trayal of Wil­mot’s ne­glected wife, lament­ing the deep­en­ing mar­i­tal rifts that cul­mi­nate in the tense con­fronta­tion with her hus­band, when the sparks re­ally fly.

It’s rib­ald, sug­ges­tive and cer­tainly not for the faint-hearted; ex­ple­tives abound, and I can­not even be­gin to de­scribe the song that opens the sec­ond act. The stylish pe­riod cos­tumes are vis­ually en­gag­ing, and the fi­nal tableau re­sem­bles a beau­ti­ful Re­nais­sance paint­ing.

I be­lieve you will like it.

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