The Royal Shakespeare Company asked award-winning playwright Richard Bean (One Man, Two Guvnors) to write them a play, and the Hullensian didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
To celebrate Hull’s City of Culture status, and no doubt Bean’s love of his home town (sorry, city), he came up with a knockabout farce that is everything to do with Hull but absolutely nothing to do with Stratford-upon-Avon.
That didn’t stop last night’s opening night audience in Shakespeare’s birthplace falling about laughing at the indecision, plotting and desperation of The Hypocrite, a man caught between a rock and a hard executioner’s block.
The Hypocrite, now playing in the RSC’s Swan Theatre, is loosely based on a true story but given Bean’s trademark comedic treatment.
It helps if you know something about Hull’s history (don’t we all? Not listening in those lessons at school?).
No, I know nothing about Hull either – except that this is a very special year for them and there’s a rather cool bridge over the Humber.
But back in the 1600s it was pivotal in the burgeoning civil war between the King and Parliament. Sir John Hotham, MP for Beverley, five times married and father of 17 (!), is desperate to marry off a particularly whiny, love-sick teenage daughter to a 56-year-old Puritan, but he needs to raise a £2,000 dowry.
Hotham is offered £1,000 from the Earl of Newcastle for his support of King Charles I and, shortly after, another £1,000 to back the Parliamentarians. How does he pledge Hull, with its biggest arsenal outside of London, to both sides, keep the cash, lose the daughter, appease his wily wife and hold on to his head?
Mark Addy, making his RSC debut, is outstanding as the fence-sitting, mathematically confused Hotham, who finds himself frantically trying to extricate himself from an impossible situation.
This is a very physical role for the robust Addy but he doesn’t miss a beat during scenes requiring him to maniacally tear around the stage, hanging up his hilarious manservant Drudge on a hook, throwing people into the theatre’s below stairs cellar, dashing off stage, out of the auditorium and more. It’s exhausting watching him.
He turns each throwaway line into comedy gold, frequently misquoting and mocking Shakespeare as the story becomes more frenzied.
The always entertaining Caroline Quentin, as the wife, Lady Sarah Hotham, is a perfect foil for Addy, the bickering couple constantly hurling the most inventive insults at each other.
But you can’t help thinking she’s wasted, often given nothing more arduous than swanning on stage, giving a knowing glance at the audience, and uttering a pithy one-liner. She only really gets down to it – so to speak – when seducing a lover on a particularly erotic Inigo Jones bed.
While Hotham juggles a number of balls to keep ahead of the axeman his daughter, Frances (Sarah Middleton) conducts an illicit liaison with Charles’ son, the pretty-boy Duke of York (Jordan Metcalfe) and his effete German cousin, Rupert (a riotous turn by Rowan Polonski) using an early form of Facebook.
This is a strong ensemble with some standout performances. Danielle Bird’s epic Drudge, a Bean creation surely modelled on One Man Two Guvnors’ octogenarian waiter Alfie, is pure Python. He doesn’t have a line but the physical comedy will have you crying with laughter.
The comedy is peppered with Grant Olding’s politically scathing protest songs from a seventeenth century boy band led by The Ranter, the superb, charismatic and vocally brilliant Josh Sneesby.
There are moments that don’t work so well. Ben Goffe’s ghost is a pointless aside and there are a couple of scenes towards the end when you feel director Phillip Breen has let hold of the reins. It’s pure pandemonium.
But overall this is a hugely entertaining show that provides a partial history lesson for those of us not from Hull (though some of the in-jokes went over my head) and a night of laughs. You can’t ask for anything more.
The Hypocrite, a co-production between Hull Truck and the RSC, runs in the Swan Theatre until April 29.
Mark Addy delivers a comedy masterclass in Richard Bean’s hilariously funny historical romp, The Hypocrite, at the RSC’s Swan Theatre.