Richard Brome's 1641 observation on the liberties and oppressions of being a beggar – a "masterless man" – has been so thoroughly reworked by Stephen Jeffreys that most of the time it's impossible to tell which material is original and which masterly pastiche. Less unambiguously successful is Max Stafford-Clark's direction, which tries to tie too many threads together: the programme notes set out his opinion that Brome's comedy was "a coded message from a society on the brink of civil war", but his determination to draw parallels with the beggary of contemporary society leads to frequent oscillations of register.
Squire Oldrents' steward Springlove revels in the freedoms of life on the road; the squire's daughters and their lovers find release from melancholy, but in turn face more pressing problems of food, shelter and not being raped. Elsewhere Jeffreys has more latitude to indulge his comic talents, and both Roger Frost's motor-mouthed Justice Clack and David Westhead's phlegmatic, deadpan Randall the bailey are creations of delight. Ian Dury and Mickey Gallagher's canting chants add atmospheric heft to an evening that's never less than diverting, but in the end attempts just that little bit too much.
Written for City Limits magazine.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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