Review: Westward Ho!

Westward Ho!, directed by Perry Mills, for Edward’s Boys, Levi Fox Hall, King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon, 11 March 2012

Dekker and Webster’s play Westward Ho! demands a “Scaene London”, which in Edward’s Boys’ production is realized through a backdrop map of the early modern city along the Thames: the image enables the audience to appreciate the geography of the play, and the importance of the river to its action. It also refers us to the days of the playwrights, but from the moment Mistress Birdlime enters, in a red PVC catsuit, strappy sandals, and a short curly blonde wig, it is clear that this London scene is one more immediately familiar, at least to the over 40s in the audience. This is, as director Perry Mills notes, “the world of early 1970s Carry On films”, and of “the Glam Rock aesthetic which combined an obsession with sex, a desire to provoke and some rather good tunes”.

The dark centrality of sex and provocation to Dekker and Webster’s play, and the distinctively Carry On sense of “in the end, no harm done”, are superbly brought out, and set in tension, by Mills’ 1970s design: meanwhile his inventive tweaks of textual details facilitate tunes which entertain the audience richly. So, for example, Justiniano-as-Parenthesis-as-Collier becomes instead Justiniano-as-Parenthesis-as-Milkman: the cries of “buy any small Coale” (III.3.1) are far more intelligibly rendered as “Gold Top! Silver Top!”, and the ensuing lengthy diatribe on the loose sexual morals of sections of Renaissance London society, now somewhat inaccessible, is replaced by a fine performance, from Henry Edwards, of Benny Hill’s 1972 innuendo-rich classic, Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West. Probably audience response to this is as varied as audience response to Benny Hill himself, but for those who find his humour more puerile than funny, it is interesting to note that the young Edwards’ knowing control of the puerile gives him a control, too, of his audience. More generally, music, both live and recorded, is used to both comic and atmospheric effect: a chorus of helmeted British bobbies doing the boogaloo (Gimme Dat Ding) to the accompaniment of a triangle provided an unforgettable moment; Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, with its apposite transvestite references – “shaved her legs and then he was she”- sets the mood for a seedy party at which Sir Gosling, Linstock and Whirlpool make moves on the masked Mistresses Honeysuckle, Wafer and Tenterhook.

The musical highlight, however, is undoubtedly the performance by Mistress Birdlime (Jeremy Franklin) of Dana’s Eurovision-winner All Kinds of Everything. Birdlime’s double entendres about her musical aptitude – “I shall never rub it in tune” (V.2.79), “let me have the biggest instrument” (V.2.86) – refer, in this production, not to a stringed instrument but to a microphone, which Franklin fondles suggestively before embarking on bravura rendition. Initially quiet and tuneful, Franklin provides a grating crescendo of erotic abandon which would not have shamed the cast of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Gloriously uninhibited and playing the audience astutely, Franklin realizes to perfection the character of queen and bawd who “tho olde, and worme-eaten” is “not so rotten” (V.2.90-1), and the audience love him.

Music and lighting, including 1970s disco lights, work with exuberant 1970s costumes and simple, flexible stage furniture put to creative use. A central unit, the height and length of a large dining table, is creatively transformed into an oven range, on which the Italian Justinian works with the panache of a pizza chef; a bar (with beer pumps); a receptionist’s desk at Birdlime’s brothel (a sign is added: Birdlime’s Laundry: When Your Needs are Pressing, Let us Take you to the Cleaners); an outdoor urinal; it even forms the “upstairs” in which the prostitute Luce entertains Master Tenterhook. In addition, space is defined through short, free-standing lines of laundry: at Justiniano’s house, the line has black lace knickers and a pair of Superman pants; chez Honeysuckle, a tea towel printed with Latin grammar signals the presence of Master Parenthesis (Justiniano disguised as a schoolteacher). The clothes lines are then cleverly rearranged to form a jetty for the ferry which will take the cast of characters westward to Brentford. A new sign declares: Bridewell Cruising: you’d be amazed at what you can catch! A Brentford hotel lobby is then evoked through some insitututional-looking seating and a pair of numbered hotel room doors: these are used to great effect in clarifying for the audience the action of the final scene of trickery and revelation, but they also work with the smuttily humorous signs to focus the seediness of the play’s action.

Westward Ho! has a complicated plot and an ambivalent morality: it therefore has the potential to confuse. In Mills’ production the superficially Carry On atmosphere frees us from a conscious need to fret over morality – we do not retreat behind a simple moral code, but perhaps because of this we are feelingly aware of the potential darkness underlying the comedy of much of the action. In reading both plot and message the audience are assisted by the absolute clarity which is a trademark of his work with Edward’s Boys. The boys understand every line, and their expressions and gestures combine with blocking, costume and set design to communicate what has presumably been worked out through many hours of painstaking rehearsal (though it must be said that the performance is without any hint of laboriousness). The attention to detail is impressive. Mistress Honeysuckle (George Hodson), addressing her teacher Master Parenthesis (Justiniano in disguise, of course), asks with apparent innocence: “Have you your – ruler about you, maister?” (II.1.143): the slight break which clear enunciation requires between ‘your’ and ‘ruler’ is perfectly observed to highlight the suggestiveness of the question, and the audience respond appreciatively.

The appealingly diminutive Hodson is in control of the stage as Mistress Honeysuckle is in control of the action. The even more diminutive James Williams, playing the prostitute Luce, brings the house down when Tenterhook (George Matts) puts his hands over her eyes and asks her to guess who he is. To Matts’s clearly-realised discomfort, Williams names a long list of clients before grabbing her assailant between the legs and declaring, with a superbly satisfied grin to the audience, “Mistris Birdlyme!” (IV.1.87). The insult offered simultaneously to Tenterhook’s masculinity and Birdlime’s “femininity” gloriously enriches Dekker and Webster’s already comical scene, and pint-sized Williams channels the humour with complete poise.

Performances by Edward’s Boys have already taught the academic world much about how scripts were shaped by and for performance by boys. Mills’ production of Westward Ho!, particularly through his bold casting of the smaller, apparently younger members of the company in roles such as Luce, Mistress Honeysuckle and Mistress Wafer (Finlay Hatch) suggests that the particular appeal of boys’ companies may have lain not, as has sometimes been thought, in titillation, but instead in dark humour. Dressed in a PVC gymslip which cleverly invokes the prostitute and the schoolgirl, Williams enjoys the performance as precisely that – a performance, which is entirely removed from any reality with which he can be identified. A young woman, not so removed, could not play the role without a hint of the tragic; a young girl as Luce would be unthinkable in its paedophilic associations. But a young boy can revel in his power to satirize the world of the adults who watch his performance. The darkness of the play’s satire is focused in the corrupted interplay between genders – the casual misogyny of Justiniano’s attitudes to his wife, for example – and paradoxically it is boys’ company performance which clarifies this.

The authenticity of the boys’ performances, in combination with devoted directorial attention to Dekker and Webster’s text, ensures that the production’s modernizations of setting are never jarring: indeed they often enrich the text. When the trio of dressed-up young women have complained together of the doings of their husbands, and Mistress Tenterhook tells Mistress Wafer: “O you are a wag indeed” (I.2.163), the additional association of footballers’ wives is irresistible. Other details clarify a few obsolete terms: Mistress Tenterhook will drink a Horlicks, not a posset, before bed. And in a final charming addition to the script, a full-cast cry of “Eastward Ho!” looks forward to the play with which Chapman, Jonson and Marston responded to that of Dekker and Webster. But not until the cast has performed with cheery but savagely satiric exuberance the New Seekers’ hit, I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing. If perfect harmony is restored, it is restored 1970s style – in a provocative, banally eroticized world, and at a time when sexual and emotional abuse of women has still not been fully exposed as no laughing matter.


Professor Elisabeth Dutton

University of Fribourg, Switzerland