Unlikeable Rochester leads way in likeable play
“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.