Etcetera Theatre, London NW1
Opened 5 January, 1996

In the mid-1790s, 20-year-old William Ireland's Shakespeare forgeries deceived many of the great and the good, both in the literary world and the country at large; the supposedly "rediscovered" play Vortigern And Rowena was even staged at Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Drury Lane Theatre. Ireland's hoax is a marvellous subject for a play, but this particular piece gets rather carried away with the opportunities for artifice.

Playwright Olly Figg works dreadfully hard at giving Sheridan plenty of bons mots, then even harder at enabling young Ireland and Drury Lane's leading "breeches" comedienne Mrs Jordan to withstand such constant withering fire. Consequently, we occasionally go as long as thirty seconds without an acerbic pun being cracked. Figg ably demonstrates his wit, but just does not know when to stop; at one point he even slips in a gratuitous Forrest Gump reference.

Andrew Vesper's performance as Ireland veers awkwardly between that of a young man trying to outplay the grown-ups and a puppy-eyed adolescent infatuated with Mrs Jordan; where the historical Ireland executed his forgeries primarily to impress his scornful father, this lad is more concerned with the actress he idolises. Katerina Jugati plays Mrs Jordan as a consummate coquette, but is under-supplied by Figg when the time comes to show a degree of sincerity and caring. As Sheridan, Alistair Findlay need do little but keep the wordplay fizzing.

David Cottis's direction is simple and largely concerned with liveliness, but falls foul of the sad fact that it is nigh impossible to fit Regency frolics into a pub theatre. Last year's Edmund Kean musical at the King's Head succeeded against the odds, but these actors are palpably conscious of being shoe-horned into the scarcely smaller Etcetera Theatre. A company of five does not pack the stage, but it becomes damned difficult to be as expansive as the style demands without either vocally or physically knocking one another off their feet. Paradoxically, they seem most comfortable when nothing but camp frenzy is called for, in a high-speed version of Vortigern And Rowena. I am not able to say whether the lines used here are Ireland's own, but from what I am told, they are certainly hackneyed enough to be.

An over-shapely cyclical ending rounds off ninety minutes which provide both less insight and a narrower range of humour than they had promised. In a glorious misprint, the programme notes refer to Shakespeare as "a scared cow"; in terms of shape and mood, Contested Will itself is more like a bewildered emu.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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